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Movie reviews: Why 'Spirit Untamed' may be the best family film of the season



A scene from the animated film "Spirit Untamed." (DreamWorks)

It’s been almost two decades since the adventures of a Kiger Mustang stallion named Spirit were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” lost to another spirited entry, “Spirited Away” from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, but spawned a cottage industry in the form of television shows and video games.

This weekend the headstrong horse goes on another feature length DreamWorks Animation adventure in “Spirit Untamed.” Now playing in theatres, it is a re-imagined version of the television series “Spirit Riding Free.”

First, some background.

Lucky Prescott’s (Isabela Merced) mother Milagro was a fearless horse trick rider from Miradero, a small town in America’s Wild West.

Milagro’s legend looms large in Lucky’s imagination, but she never got to know her. After her mother’s death, Lucky was raised on the east coast by Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore), a straight-laced woman who struggles with her niece’s inherited wild side.

When Lucky pushes her luck too far, Aunt Cora decides the youngster needs stability in the form of her father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) at the family home in sleepy little Miradero.

Life in the small town doesn’t sit well with Lucky, until she meets her kindred spirit, a wild Mustang who shares her independent streak. The horse, Spirit, is the leader of a herd of wild stallions who become the target of animal poachers led by the evil Hendricks (Walton Goggins).

In an effort to save the horses from a life of captivity and hard labour, Lucky recruits two local horseback riders -- Abigail Stone (Mckenna Grace) and Pru Granger (Marsai Martin) -- and embarks on a rescue mission.

“Spirit Untamed” contains good messages about independence, but also about being connected to a larger community. Lucky and Spirit are, well, spirited in their own ways, but their true strength lies in their respect for the people and horses around them.

It is a simple story of empowerment that doesn’t gallop over any new ground but, hackneyed though the message may be, it’s still an important one for younger viewers.

The big-eyed Margaret Keanesque character animation is nicely rendered, accompanied by energetic voice work that should appeal to fans of the original. Younger viewers, who may not have been around when the original made a stir, can find parallels between this and the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise.

With “Cruella” taking a dark turn, “Spirit Untamed” is the best family flick of the season.


This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Eugenie Bondurant in a scene from "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It." Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

Eight movies into “The Conjuring” franchise, the ghostbusting Warrens, Ed and Lorraine, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, face their most daunting adversary yet. They’ve battled evil in the form of haunted houses, supernatural spirits and a nasty doll named Annabelle, but in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” now playing in theatres, the married demonologists investigate a murder with a suspect who claims the devil made him do it.

Set in 1981 Connecticut, “The Devil Made Me Do It” is based on the trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson -- the first case to attempt a defense claim of demonic possession.

The movie begins with a priest and the Warrens performing an exorcism on eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) that would give Regan MacNeil a run for her money. As all hell breaks loose, the demon leaves the youngster’s body and after Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), the boyfriend of David’s sister, taunts it, the demon takes control of the older man. “Leave him alone!” Arne says to the demon. “He’s just a little boy you coward! Leave him alone and take me!”

Soon Arne’s behaviour changes and when he stabs his landlord 22 times, the Warrens set out to prove he is not guilty by reason of demonic possession. “The court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth,” Ed says. “I think it’s about time they accept the existence of the Devil.”

When Arne is charged in a death penalty case, the Warrens spring into action to prove his innocence. “We won’t let him down,” Ed says. As the couple works to discover what is real and what is not, the case presents ever-increasing personal danger.

“The Devil Made Me Do It” is more a procedural prompted by Arne’s actions than Arne’s story. He disappears for 45 minutes or so as the Warrens decipher the mystery surrounding his crime. Director Michael Chaves keeps up the atmosphere of dread with a series of well-executed lighting effects, jump scares and eerie sound cues but, while he delivers some shocks, he knows that the real reason “The Conjuring” movies work is the relationship between Wilson and Farmiga. As the Warrens, they are the earthbound anchor who add humanity to the supernatural goings-on.

Sure, there is a devilish waterbed—anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s already knew waterbeds were bad, but the movie makes a convincing case for them as evil as well—and lots of Satanic Panic, but “The Devil Made Me Do It” isn’t all pentagrams and inverted crosses. It flags in the midsection, but by the time the end credits roll, the relationship between the demon hunters is front and centre; a testament to the power of love. It may be a cliché, but it adds some light to the film’s dark elements and gives Wilson and Farmiga some nice character building moments.

The Warrens are unlikely horror heroes, but “The Devil Made Me Do It” proves you don’t have to be creepy to deliver the thrills.


(Abramorama/Hot Docs)

You may not have heard of Rockfield, a recording studio located on a cattle and pig farm just outside the village of Rockfield, Monmouthshire, Wales, but you have heard the songs recorded there.

A new documentary, “Rockfield: The Studio on The Farm,” now on VOD, aims to illuminate the history of a place that helped create the sound of heavy metal, gave the world Queen’s signature tune when the band mastered the final section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the summer of 1975, inspired Chris Martin to write “Yellow,” and Oasis to record “(What's the Story) Morning Glory?”

“It’s like the ‘Big Brother’ house with tunes,” says Liam Gallagher. “You go there and don’t leave until the album is done.”

The walls of the storied studio don’t have to talk, they have owners Kingsley and Charles Ward to do that. The brothers began as farmers and wannabe musicians, but soon realized there was more money in offering a place for bands to get away from the hustle and bustle of London’s music scene than there was in raising pigs.

“Once we got rid of the pigs, we got into the music business,” says Kingsley, the quirkier of the two. “So it was more and less the same, except the usage had changed.”

The Ward brothers provide a great deal of the film’s charm. From helping Lemmy find a place to store his drug stash in the band’s living quarters to Kingsley’s colourfully understated way of telling a story, they provide the documentary’s backbone. The stories are then fleshed out by the musicians who called the place home at one time or another.

“We started as a rock band dabbling in drugs,” Ozzy Osbourne says of Black Sabbath, who rehearsed their breakthrough album “Paranoid” at Rockfield, “and ended up a drug band dabbling in rock.”

Gallagher talks about trying to record after spending the day -- and night -- at one of the local pubs. “You’d have a go,” he says, “but you’d end up sounding like The Pogues.”

Robert Plant says he was “already a cliché” by the time he hit Rockfield to record his first solo album, and seems to have genuine affection for the place and Kingsley. Like so many others before him, he used “this arboreal green and pleasant land” as a place of reinvention.

Rockfield is still a recording studio and a working farm, and that mix and match of pastoral and musical is key to the magic of the place. Chris Martin of Coldplay calls it a “musical Hogwarts,” where bands went to live, create and find their sound. “We were sent away to figure it out,” he says.

“Rockfield: The Studio on The Farm” is an exercise in nostalgia, but it is an entertaining one. A look back at rock ‘n’ roll’s first residential studio, it’s a guided tour through several generations of British rock.


A scene from "Hero: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life & Times of Mr. Ulric Cross." (Photo courtesy CaribbeanTales Worldwide Distribution)

At the beginning of “Hero: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life & Times of Mr. Ulric Cross,” a bio-doc on the life of Ulric Cross and now available on premium VOD on the Cineplex Store, the film’s subject says, “When I was appointed High Commissioner in London, the Foreign Office asked, ‘How did I wish to be addressed?’ Judge? Which I had been. Professor. Which I had been. Squadron leader? Which I had been.”

Ultimately, the Caribbean high court judge, pan-African diplomat, decorated Royal Air Force war hero and BBC producer-presenter keeps it simple.

How shall we address him? “As Ulric,” he says with a laugh.

Using a mix of archival footage and reenactments, director Frances-Anne Solomon takes a methodical approach to laying out Cross’s eventful life. Step-by-step Solomon, with the aid of slick editing from Charles Ross and effective performances from a talented cast—Nickolai Salcedo as Cross, Joseph Marcell, Pippa Nixon, Peter Williams, John Dumelo, Adjetey Anang and Prince David Oseia—tells multiple stories with Cross as the focus.

Using Cross as the focus, the film illuminates his role in the broader stories of British colonialism in the Caribbean and Africa; the moves toward peaceful liberation in Ghana, Congo, Cameroon and Tanzania; and the efforts to establish the United States of Africa. “He was part of something much bigger,” says daughter Nicola.

There is a lot happening in “Hero.” The stories of Cross’s idealism and work to change the world sit alongside some MI6 intrigue and interviews with his wife Ann. Jessica B. Hill plays Nicola, the daughter who provides a link between the archival aspects of the story and her father’s final days. “My father gave me choice,” she says. “Not once when I was growing up, did I ever feel like anything was out of reach. That was not true for him. I have that to thank him for that.”

With so much going on, “Hero: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life & Times of Mr. Ulric Cross” falls prey to some episodic storytelling and occasionally feels rushed in its attempt to cover the width and breadth of Cross’s life. Still, the documentary works as an issue-driven look at the life of a remarkable man. Top Stories

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