For her documentary Dark Horse, writer/director Louise Osmond faced a tough challenge: make a story about an underdog athlete and his working class owners feel fresh, original. In this case, it does help that the athlete is a Welsh-bred racehorse without an impressive pedigree, and the same holds true for 30 owners hailing from Cefn Fforest, a Welsh mining village.
Osmond found the way to energize this story. Let a handful of these unassuming, real women and men talk in their own words about a mind-boggling decision. Though knowing next to nothing, they set out to breed a racehorse. The instigator of this crazy idea is barmaid Jan Vokes who resolved, pretty much out of the blue, that's what she wanted to do. She and husband Brian, called "Daisy," couldn't come close to affording an entry into this expensive sport, but figured if 30 people contributed £10 a week, they could do it. And thus they formed the syndicate that backed the horse they all voted to name "Dream Alliance."
Along with archival video, photographs, and briefly reenacted events, the film relies primarily on contemporary interviews with Jan, Daisy, and other syndicate members, who are in their own right quite unique characters, along with one of Dream's trainers, Johnson White. Each provide a piece to the picture that emerges of an amazing horse whom we see in time lapse, via closed circuit cameras, being born. The film moves fairly quickly through Dream Alliance's many races (leading up to the 2009 Welsh Grand National) with insights and reactions from his backers. We come to understand that Dark Horse is more about these coal mine village residents than this amazing horse. They continue to surprise, especially Jan who, needing the money for Dream Alliance, gets a second job as a cleaner at discount grocery store Asda. Several other syndicate members are equally economically challenged but hang on to their fairy tale horse. For them, this isn't a business; it's a love affair.
The film builds slowly through its 85 minutes. Perhaps because I'm a horse owner myself, I wanted more information on the training and behind-the-scenes experience of their racing world. We get only a smattering of that while, as this exceptional story develops, totally unexpected problems arise. As a result, for its second half, the people on camera lay bare a profound, deep emotional investment that invites our own. Without my giving anything away, I can assert the film becomes deeply moving and inspirational by its stirring conclusion.
Dark Horse won the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Fest and Best Documentary at the British Independent Film Awards. It's now showing at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.
Director Peter Flynn's documentary The Dying of the Light begins appropriately in the decrepit projection booth of the Columbus Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island. Built in 1926, abandoned in 1979, it still houses the sturdy, Peerless 35-mm projectors that provided dazzling carbon arc light for thousands of movies.
After a heartfelt, bittersweet, historical homage to film projection, Flynn returns in his concluding scenes to this "place of mystery and wonder" to test the durable quality of these iconic projectors, delivering another magical moment. It is immensely moving given the context, for in early titles on screen, Flynn announces that "within the last decade, the film industry has converted to digital projection," 14% of cinemas in 2008, 93% in 2013. Flynn adds, "The practice of handling and exhibiting photochemical film is now virtually gone."
Through his 95-minute chronological summary of over a century of motion picture projection, Flynn provides insight into the projectionist's job with an explanation and demonstration of the 1890s magic lantern, various film gauges, and the serious fire danger with nitrate film, used until safety film replaced it in the 1950s. He explains projector design, the behind-the-scenes work of setting changeover cues, preparing film for projectors and platters, the transition to automated booths, the difference with hard drives, and the cost. This comes to life through archival photographs, snippets from films, and visits to once extravagant movie theaters, all of this informed by captivating interviews with veteran projectionists
Compared to the wizard behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz," projectionists explain their apprenticeship and formative, sometimes surprising, experiences. For example, Herb Nipson, who worked at a 19 theater New Jersey Cineplex, verified he walked 28 miles in one day. Visits to Boston Light and Sound, Coolidge Corner, Harvard Square's Brattle, Bryant Park, Lansdowne, Fremont (Michigan), and the Sutton and Northfield Drive-ins make palpable the digital impact. The Dying of the Light reveals what we've lost, though in his closing commentary, veteran projectionist Walter Gonet expresses a positive attitude.
In The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos envisions a dystopian society in which no one may remain single. When a partner dies or gets divorced, that person takes up residence at a lovely resort where a mate must be found within 45 days or the individual will be transformed into an animal of his or her choosing.
These State rules are explained to a recently divorced David upon his arrival. He chooses a lobster should he fail to find a match. Furthermore, any match must exhibit an equivalent flaw or handicap -- be it a limp or a lisp or sociopathology. Presentations by the hotel staff argue for the advantages of two people: someone to deliver the Heimlich maneuver or to avert a rapist. On regular forays into the nearby woods, these residents hunt "loners"--those who have escaped the totalitarian regime. But these loners have equally rigorous conformist rules with dire punishment for any disobedience such as dancing with another person or, horrors, falling in love. Visits to a nearby city add more grim encounters.
In his first English language film, co-writer Lanthimos with his frequent writing partner Efthymis Filippou, satirizes societal attitudes and the inflexibility of the power brokers as well as those purportedly challenging rigid dictates but succumbing to their own equally oppressive ones. A narrator, one of the loners, occasionally adds descriptive commentary throughout events, all of it and all conversations in Brechtian monotones, the speakers out of touch with their own feelings. Only dramatic, loud music relieves this enervated world as entrapment rules in the hotel and the woods, but even those few scenes in a lovely, open landscape feel confined.
As the architect David, Colin Farrell gives an unexpectedly restrained, brilliantly undemonstrative performance. Supporting actors are also remarkable: Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman and Léa Seydoux. Were they not so impressively solid, the unhurried pace of this two hour film would take its toll since Lanthimos likes his slow motion, especially in the hunting scenes. But he calculates exactly right, letting the humor emerge as an integral element as, for example, a flamingo or a camel wanders by, or even that David arrives with a border collie, his brother. The Lobster is a masterpiece of dark comedy and metaphor. At a Landmark Theatre.
Writer/director Whit Stillman has a firm grip on satirizing a society's manners and protocols. His 1990 Metropolitan perfectly and humorously depicted pretentious, 20th century young Manhattanites. Whitman proves this was no fluke with Love & Friendship, an inspired, often hilarious adaptation of Jane Austen's short novel Lady Susan, a primer of late 18th century, upper-class British etiquette and matchmaking.
Described as "the most accomplished flirt in all of England," the central character and manipulator par excellence is Lady Susan Vernon, a widow on the hunt for a wealthy husband for herself and one for her undereducated daughter Frederica. Exiled, as the film begins, from one estate, she retreats to her sister and brother-in-law's rural home, Churchill, with several visits to London to see her equally amoral American friend Alicia. To Alicia, Susan unabashedly confides her real motives, keeping us abreast of her self-serving schemes and values. For example, when Susan realizes her daughter has become devious and manipulative, she calmly confesses, "I couldn't be more proud."
A parade of husbands and wives and potential husbands flow in and out of beautiful drawing rooms, exquisite gardens, and horse-drawn carriages, all the characters in gorgeous costumes and impressive surroundings. Whitman clarifies the significance of the many characters with on-screen titles introducing the eligible Reginald as "Catherine's young and handsome brother" or there's "Alicia's older & respectable husband." As appropriate to high society, so much more is suggested than is explicitly or, heaven forbid, crudely stated. Whitman knows the best satire comes with no wink-wink to the audience but straight ahead, dead serious. The actors superbly deliver their impressively clever dialogue with panache. Kate Beckinsale is a magnificent, dazzling Lady Susan who wields the only power she has in this society with intelligence and charm. All the actors fully inhabit their characters: Stephen Fry, Chloë Sevigny, Tom Bennett, Morfydd Clark, Xavier Samuel. The music is period appropriate and used well, the pace brisk. In fact, Love & Friendship is a film to see at least twice to catch and relish the fabulous art direction and brilliant writing. At a Landmark Theatre.
When film lovers are fortunate, the simplest story in the hands of a masterful director results in a memorable experience. And when the plot revolves around food, our senses can engage more fully as they do in Japanese director Naomi Kawase's Sweet Bean. The confection at the heart of a poignant encounter between joyless Sentaro and 76-year-old Tokue is Dorayaki.
Made by placing a sweet red bean paste between two small pancakes, the traditional, much-loved Dorayaki is made daily at Sentaro's small bakery. But his an, the bean paste, lacks appeal until Tokue answers manager Sentaro's ad for part-time help and teaches him to listen to the beans. She explains that they've come a long way from the fields and it would be an insult to cook them right away. They have to get used to the sweetness that she summons from them. A beautiful partnership blossoms with a needy teenage girl, Wakana, a regular customer with her own touching story.
Sweet Bean is no fairy tale, and unexpected revelations add layers of emotional complexity and metaphorical suggestions. But the film is a heartwarming, albeit bittersweet, experience. Credit first goes to the wonderful Kirin Kiki as Tokue. An actress with over a hundred credits, she melted my heart in her first appearance at the bakery and never wavered in her appeal, a mesmerizing presence. As Sentaro, Masatoshi Nagase offers a striking counterpoint to Tokue, and all the supporting actors give accomplished performances.
Based on Durian Sukegawa's novel, director Kawase's screenplay teases out meaningful interaction with no clutter. The visual appeal, suggested aromas, and meticulous preparation leading to a scrumptious final product made my mouth water. Sweet Bean joins the wonderful Tampopo and Jiri Dreams of Sushi as a story centered on food but celebrating the human connections that truly nourish. Reminded of this, senses stimulated, I appreciated my subsequent meals with friends paying more attention to the entire experience. Sometimes a child leads the way, and sometimes a 76-year-old woman does as in Sweet Bean.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Sweet Bean screens as part of Webster University's Film Series at the Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, May 20 through Sunday, May 22 at 8:00 each evening.