The latest ‘Black Beauty’ is ‘beautifully uplifting’

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By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer

‘Black Beauty’

Disney presents a film written and directed by Ashley Avis, based on the novel by Anna Sewell. No MPAA rating. Running time: 109 minutes. Available on Disney+.

For more than a century, every generation has had its cinematic adaptation of “Black Beauty,” and while the new Disney+ version switches the genders of the magnificent horse as well as the young protagonist and moves the locale from the English countryside of the late 19th century to the American West of today, it’s thematically and spiritually faithful to Anna Sewell’s timeless classic, from the horse serving as narrator to the episodic nature of the storyline to the powerful and still-relevant message about humane treatment of animals — and the undeniably healing and lasting dynamic between human and creature.

I loved this movie. Yes, it’s an unapologetically sentimental, anthropomorphic, family-friendly, sugar-sweet story aimed squarely at the younger members of your brood, and stop me if you think there’s anything wrong with that. This is a beautifully uplifting film at a time we can all use a dose of old-fashioned, cynicism-free storytelling. Writer-director Ashley Avis and her production team have created a gorgeous, sweeping epic, with Kate Winslet voicing Black Beauty’s thoughts and feelings to heart-melting effect, the wonderfully talented Mackenzie Foy delivering a sublime performance as the girl who finds a kindred spirit in Black Beauty, and Iain Glen from “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey” playing the most dashing and empathetic horse whisperer this side of Robert Redford.

“Black Beauty” isn’t one of those photorealistic movies with animals literally talking, e.g., the most recent version of “The Lion King.” From the moment we meet the energetic and adventure-seeking mustang foal who will be named Black Beauty, roaming free in the wild with her mother and extended family, her thoughts and emotions are expressed through Winslet’s warm and comforting voice-over.

The first of many lump-in-your-throat moments occurs when 21st-
century cowboys, complete with tracking helicopter overhead, round up the herd and Beauty is separated from her mother, never to see her again. Fortunately, the young filly winds up with the horse-loving, quietly noble and goodhearted trainer John Manly, who believes wild horses can be broken in a humane fashion and should be treated with care and respect.

Just as Beauty is coming to terms with her new life, there’s another new arrival at the ranch: the teenage girl Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy), who lost her family as well when a tragic car accident claimed the lives of her parents. Alone and closed-off, a city girl in the country, Jo barely knows her Uncle Jack and wants nothing to do with him, but she does feel an immediate connection to Beauty, and the connection is mutual. They are fellow wounded souls, but they also share a nearly unbreakable spirit, though both will be tested time and again in the years to come.

“Black Beauty” is sectioned off like the chapter book it’s based on, with Beauty spending time as a horse-for-lease in a lavishly appointed stable run by a cruel and uncaring matriarch (Claire Forlani), putting in some heroic years as a rescue horse for a good man named Terry (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) and eventually winding up as a carriage horse in New York City, subjected to backbreaking hours, horrific living conditions and terrible neglect by the mercenary stable operators. Meanwhile, Jo never gives up on one day finding Beauty, though that hardly seems likely now that Jo is a young woman living in … New York City! Maybe there’s a chance for a miraculous reunion after all, what do you think!

There’s nothing subtle about the simple messaging urging us to be the best we can be and to treat our fellow humans and our animal companions as we’d like to be treated. Then again, there was nothing subtle about that messaging in the source material, but that doesn’t lessen its impact. Writer-director Avis even includes a lovely reference to the “Black Beauty” author’s dependence on horses and horse-drawn carriages to help her get about (Sewell was severely injured at 14 and her mobility was restricted), as well as Sewell’s groundbreaking advocacy for animal rights. The 2020 edition of “Black Beauty” is among the best versions I’ve ever seen.

‘The Flight Attendant’

An eight-part limited series premiering on HBO Max.

“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster, the bars are temples, but the pearls ain’t free …” —“One Night in Bangkok,” a hit single from the musical “Chess,” which you probably never saw and I didn’t see either.

Kaley Cuoco gets the role of her career in the HBO Max limited series “The Flight Attendant” and she absolutely nails it as the title character, a hot mess who wakes up one morning in a luxury hotel suite in Bangkok with a handsome near-stranger in bed next to her, and he won’t be getting up anytime soon, given he was murdered in the dead of night and is covered in the blood that gushed out from the slash across his throat.

And yes, this is a comedy. Mostly.

Presented with great style and an abundance of split-screen and quick-cut flourishes and based on Chris Bohjalian’s dark comedic novel of the same name, “The Flight Attendant” moves at a breakneck pace, befitting the lifestyle of Cuoco’s Cassie Bowden, who works international flights for the fictional Imperial Atlantic airline and takes advantage of the perks of the job, i.e., she hits the bars and nightclubs in glamorous locales, getting totally wasted and often hooking up with a colleague or someone she just met. Even when Cassie’s on the job.

When Cassie’s phone alarm goes off the next morning (her phone alarm is set to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham, and her ringtone is “Two of Hearts” by Stacey Q), she feels the familiar aftereffects of a night of hard partying, tries to shake off the cobwebs, takes a look at the guy from the night before — and has a major freakout, with his throat having been slashed and his upper body soaked in blood.

This is … not good. Shaking and in near shock, Cassie phones her attorney friend Annie (Zosia Mamet from “Girls”) and says, “Who’s the girl, the Italian girl, actually she was the American girl with the murder thing, she was obviously innocent?”

“Are you talking about Amanda Knox?” comes the reply.

“Yeah! Did she call the police, the Italian police, did they come, do you know what happened there?”

“They arrested her. Cassie, why are you asking me about Amanda Knox?”

Off we go on a madcap and lurid murder mystery, as Cassie makes one bad decision after another, starting with a frantic and failed effort to clean up the crime scene before fleeing the hotel without contacting the authorities. With each passing episode, Cassie bumbles and stumbles about, playing private detective even as the FBI targets her as the main suspect. Along the way, Cassie tries to piece together the events of that fateful night with the help of the murder victim, Michiel Huisman’s Alex, who lives on inside her head and acts as a sounding board and confidante.

At times “The Flight Attendant” is a little too zippy and visually self-indulgent for its own good, but it’s a wickedly funny black comedy with some poignant domestic drama, and Cuoco is a marvel to watch every second she’s onscreen. 

Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun-Times

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