Tag Archives: B

WILD BEAUTY: MUSTANG SPIRIT OF THE WEST

Producers: Edward Winters, Ashley Avis and Richard Avis   Director: Ashley Avis   Screenplay: Ashley Avis   Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Grade: B

Ashley Avis was an equestrian as a girl, and her love of horses was clear in her 2020 version of Anna Sewell’s classic 1877 novel “Black Beauty,” which, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, never made it to theatres, winding up on Disney+ instead.  So it’s not surprising that she’s devoted years to making “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West,” which she also narrates.

But the title may be a trifle deceptive.  Yes, there are numerous shots of the majestic steeds running free on the western plains.  (The cinematography is by Kai Krause, and the score by Guillaume Roussel.)     But this is a documentary about how their numbers are threatened by what Avis alleges is a conspiracy between the government, ranchers who want the right to graze their cattle and sheep on public lands where the horses run, and companies that make millions conducting round-ups of the mustangs, an exposé of corruption that perverts the very law designed to protect the animals from harm. 

The legislation is the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (WFRHBA), an act proposed to Congress by President Nixon and signed by him in December of that year.  (This may be one of the few films you’ll find that portrays Nixon in heroic terms.)  The act protected animals roaming freely on federal land and made it a crime to harass or kill them. 

But the law, Avis contends, had a fatal flaw: it placed implementation in the Bureau of Land Management, which was given wide latitude to determine how the equine population should be controlled in relation to other concerns—the needs of ranchers, environmental deterioration, and the desires of hunters.  The discretion afforded the BLM, the film argues, has led to decisions to reduce the number of horses made on the basis of factors that have little to do with the original intent of the legislation, and to cruelty in rounding up, corralling and disposing of horses that is systematically withheld from public scrutiny.

Much of the documentary is devoted to disclosing these unsavory practices through the techniques of investigative journalism—using hidden cameras and microphones to reveal auctions and sales that are clear violations of statute, accessing records of profits made by firms licensed by the BLM to conduct the round-ups the agency sanctions and the miniscule fines levied against the owners who violate the law, and confronting BLM officials who restrict access to sites from which the director and her crew can observe and film round-ups, though they nevertheless manage to shoot footage of horses being chased by low-flying helicopters.  (The filmmakers are told that they’re being kept from certain vantage points for reasons of safety, but Avis observes that a young girl has been allowed aboard one of the helicopters.)  In nod to balance, there are excerpts of interviews with ranchers who offer their own views on the optimum number of horses to be kept on public land, but these are few; the aim of the presentation is not a false sense of balance balance, but indignation.

All of this is prologue to the purpose of the film—not just increasing awareness of the situation but encouraging support for public activism to change it for the better.  Footage of rallies calling for greater protection for the horses is accompanied by a push to enlist supporters, especially children, to lend their voices to the effort.  “Wild Beauty” thus serves not just as an instructional effort, but a recruitment tool for the Wild Beauty Foundation, an organization devoted to protecting the mustangs of the Southwest. It should prove effective in both respects. 

“Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” may be clumsily titled, but it’s a passionate exploration of the plight of the magnificent horses still running free in the American Southwest and critique of the government’s failure to enforce its own mandate to protect them from harm.    

ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET

Producers: Julie Ansell, Judy Blume, Amy Brooks, James L. Brooks, Kelly Fremon Craig, Aldric La’auli Porter and Richard Sakai   Director: Kelly Fremon Craig   Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig   Cast: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Echo Kellum, Kathy Bates, Amari Alexis Price, Katherine Kupferer, Kate MacCluggage, Aidan Wojtak-Hissong, Isol Young, Simms May, Landon Baxter, Zachary Brooks, Mia Dillon, Gary Houston and Wilbur Fitzgerald    Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: B

Those for whom reading Judy Blume’s 1970 coming-of-age novel was a fondly-remembered rite of passage will appreciate that Kelly Fremon Craig and her collaborators have brought such taste and affection to its long hoped-for transition to the screen.  “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” with its humorously frank treatment of a girl’s pre-adolescent anxieties, was considered rather provocative in its day.  Today, given the changing mores, the movie has something of the feel of a TV afterschool special or cheekily nostalgic sitcom, but when handled so lovingly it’s still enjoyable.

Abby Ryder Fortson is both suitably plain and pleasantly engaging as Margaret Simon, the twelve-year old compelled to move with her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie) from New York City to a New Jersey suburb when Herb gets a promotion.  She’s upset about leaving her beloved grandma Sylvia (Kathy Bates) and all her friends behind and scared at the thought of having to go to a new school.

But things actually work out pretty well pretty quickly in her new home.  Super-aggressive Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), who lives down the block and will also be starting sixth grade, invites her to be the fourth member in a secret club she’s starting with classmates Janie (Amari Alexis Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer).  And though Nancy’s brother Evan (Landon Baxter) heckles them, his buddy Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong) is a nice kid Margaret’s soon infatuated with.  As an added bonus, her teacher Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum) is a good guy.

But there are problems, too.  Class dweeb Norman Fisher (Simms May) shows interest in Margaret, and Nancy sets rules for the club—like not wearing socks—that can be irritating.  She also emphasizes the need to increase their breast sizes and wear bras, and the importance of having their first period.  And the group follows her lead in being catty toward some of their students, especially Laura (Isol Young), who’s more physically developed than they are and is rumored to be letting the handsome class lothario Philip Leroy (Zachary Brooks), whom they all swoon over, “feel her up.”  Meanwhile Barbara gets into difficulties of her own: wanting to fit in and help Margaret at school as well, she allows herself to get dragooned by Nancy’s primly bossy mother Jan (Kate MacCluggage) into all sorts of PTA duties, though she obviously pines to return to the art teaching she gave up with the move.

The other big question facing both mother and daughter has to do with religion.  Margaret’s parents decided to let her grow up without adhering either to Barbara’s Christian faith or Herb’s Judaism, deciding that she can choose what she believes for herself when she’s old enough.  Given the stress of the move, Margaret’s already started asking a nondenominational God for advice (thus the title), and when Mr. Benedict suggests that she investigate religions as her class project, it leads her to go to Temple when visiting proud Sylvia in New York and attending Christian services with Barbara and Janie back home; she even stumbles into a Catholic confessional at one point.    

But a serious crisis occurs when Barbara’s parents (Mia Dillon and Gary Houston connect with her for the first time in many years, having effectively disowned her for marrying a Jew, and come to New Jersey from Ohio, intending among other things to proselytize Margaret.  Hearing of their visit, Sylvia crashes the party with her friend Morris Binamin (Wilbur Fitzgerald), and all heck breaks loose.

All of this, and more, represents a year of serious learning for Margaret—about whom to trust and how to behave, about choosing wisely and not following others blindly, about treating other people with respect, and, of course, about becoming a woman, the “event” with which the movie ends.  It proves far less traumatic for her than it did for Carrie White, though of course Carrie’s mother was far less supportive than Barbara.

Craig secures an extremely likable performance from Fortson, and more than passable ones from all the younger members of the cast.  McAdams, freed from the stifling restraints of the “Dr. Strange” franchise, seems to be having a great time as the frazzled but loving mom, and though he has less to do, Safdie contributes a wonderfully laid-back turn.  Bates, of course, sparks matters up every time she appears (the Temple scene shows her at her best), while Kellum makes Benedict the sort of understanding teacher every kid would love to have.  Steve Saklad’s production design and Ann Roth’s costumes reflect the period ambience nicely on a medium-level budget (a subway sign advertising Ethel Merman in “Hello Dolly” pinpoints the action to 1970, the year of the book’s appearance), and Tim Ives’ cinematography is colorful in a sitcom sort of way; the picture moves nicely from incident to incident, thanks to editors Nick Moore and Oona Flaherty, and Hans Zimmer’s score is as jaunty as you’d expect.

Those unacquainted with Blume’s book may dismiss Craig’s movie as innocuous, lightweight coming-of-age fare.  But for those who love the book, it will be a special treat.