Movie Reviews: Documentary ‘Dark Horse’ is a Big Winner

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Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Louise Osmond’s documentary "Dark Horse."

(WOMENSENEWS)—My top pick this week is “Dark Horse,” filmmaker Louise Osmond’s inspiring documentary about triumph and its transience, and the will to carry on. Set in a Welsh town that slumped when its coal mines tanked, “Dark Horse” is the true tale of Janet Vokes, a local barmaid who decided she’d like to raise and race a thoroughbred. Without any experience, but plenty of uncanny ingenuity, Vokes gets friends to pool money to breed, train and race Dream Alliance, a gorgeous gelding with a willful and somewhat scrappy temperament. His working class backers are shunned by snooty denizens of the thoroughbred world until Dream surprises everyone by winning the prestigious Chepstow hurdles. Dream is seriously injured, but finds his way back to the track. Spirit soars in Osmond’s beautifully crafted documentary. The film is a winner and I’ll bet you’ll want to see it more than once.

In another documentary, “The Silence of Mark Rothko,” filmmaker Marjoleine Boonstra takes us on a journey of the artist’s New York studio, Florence’s Museo Di San Marco and The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum, where a Rothko exhibit is being installed. The film is a marvelous aesthetic travelogue of real places as well as Rothko’s mindset. A must-see for art lovers. Opened May 4.

On to the timely Mother’s Day release of “A Light Beneath Their Feet,” a narrative feature that tells the poignant tale of a mother-daughter relationship that tests the boundaries and commitments of daughterly love. Beth (Madison Davenport), a bright high schooler, is torn between following her dream to attend UCLA and staying in Chicago to take care of her exasperatingly needy but whimsically loveable bipolar mother (Taryn Manning). Valerie Weiss’ smart direction of Moira McMahon’s compassionate script and the brilliantly nuanced performances from Davenport and Manning beautifully balance pathos and humor. The girl is in a dilemma and whichever choice she makes will be loaded with some measure of personal sacrifice and regret. Moving and meaningful, the film is a timely meditation for Mother’s Day.

“Mothers and Daughters,” on the other hand, is a formulaic exploit of familial relationship dramas. Paige Cameron’s ambitious script weaves several loosely related storylines into a catalog-like overview of sketchy mother-daughter-sister relationships. The characters aren’t well developed, and the weave just doesn’t work. It’s a pity that the cast of superb actresses — including Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, Selma Blair, Mira Sorvino and Courtney Cox — aren’t given more to work with. The film is a big hot air balloon. Let it float away.

Opened May 5

“Adira” is a remarkable coming-of-age story set in Nazi Germany. It is about a young Jewish girl (Andrea Fantauzzi) who is traumatized after witnessing her parents being hauled away by the Gestapo. She escapes to the German countryside and seeks refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, where she struggles to survive sexual aggressions and starvation.  Written and directed by Irene Delmonte and Bradley Lincoln, the gripping drama is a reminder of the trauma suffered by children who are separated from their parents.

“Bridgend” is a compelling coming-of-age narrative with horror tropes.  Sara (Hannah Murray) and her policeman dad move to Wales’ rural Bridgend County, beset by a spate of teen suicides. As dad investigates, Sara falls in with a cultish clique of local lads who go in for excessive drinking and wilderness revelries. Sara is at risk. Danish documentary filmmaker Jeppe Rønde brings an unnerving aura of authenticity to his first narrative feature, based on intensive research into true events in the remote community. Rønde, who co-wrote the taught script, cast local non-actors in many roles, a daring move that pays off by creating engaging tension between what is known of the real events and this foreboding fictionalized version of them. The film brings a social shock facet to the teen theme present in this week’s releases.

Opened May 3

“Crossing Point,” which opened on May 3, is a crime in action thriller with a female victim. Olivia and Michael are young lovers on vacation in Baja California when she is grabbed by a drug lord who demands that Michael smuggle drugs across the U.S. border within 12 hours or she will be killed. The plot thickens as Michael finds himself eluding both the Mexican cops and a rival drug cartel. The plot is engaging. See the film to find out how it all works out. And imagine how much more interesting it might have been had the bad guys grabbed Michael, and Olivia was set into action to release him.

“The Haunting of Alice D,” written and directed by Jessica Sonneborn, features a vengeful female ghost. The film is set in Davenport House, which was a famous brothel during the late 19th century.  The establishment was abandoned after Alice, a desperately unhappy young prostitute, killed herself on the premises and remained in spirit to haunt it. Recently, the arrogant and self-indulgent male heir to the Davenport estate renovated the mansion and moved in, throwing a huge party to celebrate his triumphant occupancy. Alice doesn’t approve and all hell breaks loose. If you happen to find yourself hungering for revenge for anything in your life, this is a thrilling way to take the edge off.

“Bestseller,” another good femme-centric scarer, is directed by Christine Rohn. Here, revenge is at the core of the story, too, but the protagonist is an enraged man who targets a strong and successful female character. Anne Harper (Melissa Annschutz) is a literary agent whose vacation in an isolated cabin in rural Michigan is disrupted by the shadowy presence of a male writer who is stalking her with evil intent.

“The Faith of Anna Waters” is a detective story with sci-fi horror elements. When investigative reporter Jamie (Elizabeth Rice) heads to Singapore to uncover the mysterious circumstances of her sister’s death, she discovers that an ancient demonic entity is using advanced technologies to cast his evil into the modern world. Implausible, to be sure, but Jamie is an appealing character and the film is a good enough ride for genre fans.

“Bite” strikes, if you will, as a femme-centric twist on the classic biohorror flick, “The Fly.” Casey (Elma Begovic), a bride-to-be on her bachelorette getaway, is bitten by an unidentified insect, resulting in her transformation into an unstoppable bug who feeds on flesh and builds a hive in which to lay her eggs. A satisfying premise for some genre fans, I’m sure. But not me.

Finally, an obligatory mention of  “Captain America: Civil War,” the next chapter in the blockbuster franchise that pits good against evil, as it sets current social and political issues in the mythic context of Marvel’s comic book universe, a realm that has permitted some female characters into its pantheon of superheroes. Unfortunately, the Marvel goddesses are not prevalent here.

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