Dream Horse ***
Bleecker Street Films
Toni Collette in Dream Horse
It would be hard to top Louise Osmond’s 2015 documentary about this same true story for both character charm and crowd-pleasing drama, but a fictionalized version could have done far worse than this one. Toni Collette plays Jan Vokes, the part-time barmaid/part-time supermarket employee in a small Welsh community who becomes the ringleader for a syndicate in which many local residents invest in a racehorse, which they name Dream Alliance. There’s obviously a basic “underdog sports movie” structure to the narrative, as the common folk find themselves mingling with the hoity-toity elite of the racing world. And while the two central performances and plot arcs—Collette and Damian Lewis, as an accountant whose previous flirtation with horse ownership threatened his marriage—both work at conveying the spark provided by Dream Alliance to humdrum lives, Dream Horse
flirts precariously with overly-quirk-ifying its cast of supporting characters in a way that felt much more organic when we were seeing the real people as talking heads in the documentary. All the improbable twists and turns ultimately feel like fairy-tale stuff when dramatized, but thanks to Collette in particular, there’s still a recognizably human side to this feel-good tale. Available May 21 in theaters.
Drunk Bus **
It doesn’t particularly feel like progress when you see that the “magical Negro” trope is simply being applied to a different race or ethnicity. In a story the filmmakers inform us at the outset is “inspired by real shit,” recent college grad Michael (Charlie Tahan) is stuck in a loop both literally, as bus driver on the late night route around his Ohio alma mater, and metaphorically, as he finds himself unable to move past getting dumped by his long-time girlfriend. Enter Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa), a Pacific Islander assigned as a bodyguard/bouncer for Michael’s often-rowdy shift, and who begins dispensing life wisdom. Co-directors John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke create an effectively bleak winter landscape for Michael’s ennui, and a couple of memorably amusing episodes conveying his perpetually put-upon status. But Chris Molinaro’s script is overloaded with too-quirky characters sporting too-quirky names: a fan of local Ohio band Devo called Devo Ted; a young woman who screams in her sleep dubbed Night Tara; etc. Mostly, there’s the problem of Pineapple existing in this universe seemingly for no other purpose besides sharing whatever the Samoan translation of carpe diem
might be. A white dude’s quarter-life crisis is tough enough to sympathize with even before making it the center of a less-privileged person of color’s attention. Available May 21 via SLFSatHome.org.
The Dry **1/2
Eric Bana in The Dry
Terrific atmosphere can only take a movie so far, especially if it’s structured as a whodunnit and the resolution proves unsatisfying. Co-writer/director Robert Connolly adapts Jane Harper’s novel about Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), a Melbourne federal police officer who returns to his drought-ravaged rural hometown for the funeral of a childhood friend, whom it seems killed his family in a murder-suicide. That investigation becomes complicated by a 20-year-old unsolved case involving a dead teenager (BeBe Bettencourt), with plentiful flashbacks revealing Aaron’s connection to the girl. There’s a familiar general vibe to the notion of a small town full of secrets and closeted skeletons, but Connolly provides specificity with shots of the arid landscape, cracked riverbeds and dust devils conveying a particular sense of hopelessness in this place. Bana’s internalized performance provides a solid foundation through the introduction and narrative exoneration of various potential suspects, all leading to the revelation of The Truth behind both plot-lines. The frustration comes from how little those payoffs feel connected to any larger thematic ideas, or even really to one another. It’s a story that just kind of ends, an evocative cinematic page-turner that scarcely lingers for a moment after you put it down. Available May 21 in theaters and via VOD.
Final Account ***
While it’s easy to feel like there isn’t any new ground to cover in documentaries about the Holocaust, Luke Holland finds an angle that feels disturbingly timely. Beginning in 2008, he set out to interview Germans who were alive during World War II—some just children at the time, others members of the SS and other official entities—for their reflections and recollections on their country’s steps from initial persecution of Jews through the Final Solution. Plenty of details about the indoctrinations experienced by young Germans are unsettling, including a field trip to see the ashes of a burning synagogue after Kristallnacht, making the pathway from innocent to perpetrator easier to understand. The range of perspectives by the interview subjects ranges widely—some are profoundly ashamed, others are in deep denial—as Holland probes on camera to try to understand how much responsibility they feel for what happened. But the strongest segment finds ex-SS officer Hans Werk speaking to a group of student, and challenging one obviously ultra-nationalist young man on his attitudes. It’s too easy, we see, for people to allow horrible things to happen; as Werk notes at another point, “Those heroes you expect to find … there aren’t many of them.” Available May 21 in theaters.
New Order ***
A profound cynicism lies at the heart of writer/director Michel Franco’s grim speculative political thriller, which is mostly enough to carry it through the absence of much human connection. On the day of her wedding in Mexico City, Marianne Novelo (Naian González Norvind) is caught up in a class revolution that comes directly to the home of her wealthy family, and ultimately finds her a prisoner of the revolutionaries. Franco spends a lot of time on the procedural details of the ensuing chaos and “new normal,” shifting focus between Marianne, her surviving family members, and a family of former employees of the Novelo family. But while the characters are rarely developed as more than broad types, New Order
commits to the bit of how this uprising, theoretically in the name of the working class, ends up kicking their asses as much as, if not more than, the wealthy. At a lean 86 minutes, the film doesn’t shy away from the brutality experienced by Marianne and her fellow prisoners; it’s also brutally honest about a righteous cause quickly descends into cruelty and corruption, and how those who were supposed to be “first against the wall” somehow always end up making out just fine. Available May 21 in theaters.
Stop Filming Us ***1/2
Dutch director Joris Postema here attempts a kind of auto-criticism that is bound to come off as white liberal self-flagellation to many, but keeps turning in so many interesting directions that it remains consistently fascinating. The central notion is the image of Africa regularly portrayed to the West through photos, films and other media, and how a Western lens might distort the picture to emphasize strife and poverty. That means that Postema is—over the course of his documentary shot mostly in Goma, Congo—essentially interrogating whether he should be making this movie at all. The director captures probing conversations involving himself and his African crew, which weave between looking at Postema’s own prejudices, to attitudes that might exist in Africans who have internalized a colonial mindset (like the assumption that it was the white director who chose a specific location for a local screening of his film). And there’s some pointed material about the obstacles faced by an aspiring African filmmaker, Bernadette Vivuya, as she attempts to present her perspective to the world. On the most fundamental level, it’s a story about “who gets to tell this story,” yet the answers are consistently more complicated than you might expect. Available May 21 via SLFSatHome.org.