Reviewed films feature horses, dragons and spider persons

By Leonard Heldreth
Two of this month’s films deal with training animals, and the third revisits that notorious radioactive spider.

The Mustang

Sometimes a new point of view can bring a fresh prospective to familiar genres and scenes. French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre had previously made a short film about how caring for a rabbit helped an elderly woman cope with her problems.
After Clermont-Tonnerre read an article about the way the Bureau of Corrections uses hard-case prisoners to train wild horses, she researched the subject and co-wrote a screenplay. Sundance offered support (Robert Redford is the Executive Producer), and the result is The Mustang.
While some of the film is familiar–the prison setting and situations, the man-horse initial conflict and final reconciliation, the crusty old geezer who offers advice—Clermont-Tonnerre combines the traditional elements in a fresh way that avoids the predictable.
Holding it all together and giving a stunning performance is the Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Roman Coleman. Big, tough, silent, used to being alone, Roman has recently been transferred to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center; he is in the middle of a 12-year prison term for a charge of domestic violence, the details of which are gradually revealed.
He has a serious problem with anger management that has often landed him in solitary confinement; and when his psychologist-counselor (Connie Britton) asks him questions, trying to figure out where to assign him in this new location, he finally acknowledges, “I’m not good with people.” She puts him into an outdoor maintenance group where much of his work involves shoveling horse manure.
This prison participates in a program run by the Bureau of Land Management; some of the approximately 100,000 mustangs that roam wild across 10 American states are separated out with helicopters and sent to the prisons, where selected inmates break them for riding and eventually for sale at auction.
One day while Roman is shoveling, he hears a steady tattoo as a confined horse tries to break out of its stall; he is intrigued. Myles, the program’s grizzled director (Bruce Dern), notices the interest Roman has in this “particularly crazed” mustang, and pulls him reluctantly into the rehab program. Aiding Myles is Henry Davis (Jason Mitchell), who shows Roman what is possible, besides fireworks, when a hard-headed man meets an equally hard-headed horse.
At the beginning, Roman and the horse he names Marquis (pronouncing it Marcus) have a violent confrontation, but time in solitary for both nudges them into a nervous equilibrium, as Roman learns to ride. Henry warns him, “If you wanna control the horse, first you gotta control yourself,” and such control has been Roman’s life-long problem.
The plot is cluttered up with prison drug deals. Gideon Adlon as Roman’s daughter adds an additional background story, but essentially this is the story of Roman and Marquis. Fortunately, the last third of the film introduces both positive and negative elements that bring the characters to an unpredictable but believable conclusion.
The setting is realistically photographed (an abandoned prison was used), and the photographer does some interesting things with light and shadow, especially the way sun shines into a cell. Some of the minor roles are played by actual inmates who participated in the program, adding to the feeling of authenticity. Although a couple of the subplots could have been eliminated, The Mustang is a solid little indie film, full of believable characters and emotions that occasionally verge on but never quite spill over into melodrama. Matthias Schoenaerts’ performance as Roman Coleman is one of the best of the year. Don’t miss it.

A scene from “How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World.” (DreamWorks photo)

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World

Training a wild mustang and training a fire-breathing dragon are obviously two different tasks, but each presents its own challenges and rewards. How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World is the third and apparently last in the animated series from DreamWorks Animation, and it ends in a way not totally unlike that of The Mustang, but more appropriate for a young adult audience.
The film opens about a year after the end of the second film, and Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) has continued his crusade to make a dragon-Viking utopia. He has been so successful at bringing rescued dragons back to the Viking base on the Isle of Berk that he’s running out of space and food for the new creatures. To further complicate matters, a new villain has appeared in the form of Grimmel the Grisly, who just likes to kill dragons and has pledged himself to wiping out all Night Furies, including Hiccup’s Toothless.
F. Murray Abrahams brings a streak of intellectual sadism to his characterization of Grimmel. Most of the usual characters are back: Hiccup’s intended, Astrid (America Ferrera); his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett); his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) in flashback; and the Vikings—Eret (Kit Harrington), Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Tuffnut (Justin Rupple), and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
A significant new character is White Fury, a female snow-white version of Toothless, and she adds some dragon hormones to the mix as the two participate in a courtship dance.
Returning director-screenwriter Dean DeBlois, drawing again from Cressida Cowell’s children’s books, follows the adventures of Toothless and Hiccup as they defy Grimmel and lead the dragons from Berk to Caldera—the homeland of dragons and the “hidden world” of the film’s title.
The visuals, especially of Caldera, have reached impressive new levels with the help of visual consultant and Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049).
The epilogue, set a year after the escape to Caldera, is full of spotted baby dragons and big-eyed human toddlers, implying a world where young dragons and Vikings can peacefully co-exist.
Anyone who enjoys first rate animation with a solid but unobtrusive message will want to see this film and the two that preceded it.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man continues but, frankly, this reviewer has seen too much of the arachnid boy in recent Marvel films. Nonetheless, a glance at a current review caught my attention, and I couldn’t resist the tongue-in-cheek quality that I found in the film. This Spider-Man has much more humor, striking visuals and creativity than any of the spidey movies in recent memory.
Updating the universe to a “multi-verse,” to match recent theories in physics, the film assumes an infinite number of universes and therefore an infinite number of spider-men (except they’re not all men). Nor are they all alike. They even vary in their physical and graphic makeup.
First, the film starts with the well-known story of how a boy was bitten by a radioactive spider in New York. But the city in which it happens is not quite the New York that we are familiar with. The background is sometimes done in comic panels and dialogue balloons. Nor is the boy a white kid named Peter Parker; rather, he’s a Brooklyn mixed race middle schooler named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). His mother is a Latino hospital worker (Luna Lauren Velez), and his father is an African-American police officer (Brian Tyree Henry).
Nonetheless, Miles goes through the same confusion and adolescent trauma as the original Peter Parker, as he wonders how he could have become Spider-Man. Then, swinging into this universe on a web strand comes a white, adult Peter Parker (Chris Pine) now older, a little creaky, and a bit out of shape, but willing to help Miles, since something called him to this city at this time.
In short order, other spider-persons appear: a black-and-white film noir Spider-Man in a trench coat and fedora (Nicolas Cage); Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a futuristic anime heroine with a robot spider; Gwen Stacy, a spider-girl in white (Hailee Steinfeld); and Peter Porker (or Spider-Ham), a cartoon pig (John Mulaney)—hope I haven’t missed any. Other familiar characters include Peter’s longtime love, Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz); his Aunt May (Lily Tomlin); and cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). To oppose all these spiderpersons are the usual roster of villains, including Doc Ock (now female), Kingpin, Scorpion and the Green Goblin. Each character is distinctively and colorfully presented, and everyone has in-jokes about being a cartoon character.
There’s even an appearance by an animated Stan Lee selling Spider-Man t-shirts.
The freshest and most stimulating aspect of the film is the visual style, which combines the traditional Marvel mix with animation that looks both computer-driven and hand-drawn; it includes futuristic as well as funky urban elements, moves the point of view around like it was a camera, and often overwhelms the viewer with color and motion. Even viewers tired of the traditional Spider-Man movies should enjoy the breezy irreverence and visual creativity of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org)

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.