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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Two taut Aussie thrillers that do the...

Screen Grabs: Two taut Aussie thrillers that do the trick

The Dry and Higher Ground excite. Plus: a heartwarming Welsh horse, a Drunk Bus, and a Romanian comedy(!)

Australian cinema wasn’t much of a thing until half a century ago, when 1971—one of the greatest film years by any standard—brought both Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright (aka Outback) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. Though directed by foreigners (Canadian and English, respectively), they were uniquely Australian stories that set the mold for much of what was to come. 

And what came was that, by the decade’s end, such homegrown directors as Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Fred Schepisi, and Philip Noyce were considered among the world’s leading emergent celluloid talents. While movies from Australia (barring the occasional international production shot there) were seldom seen abroad before 1970, by the 1980s they’d become widely exported and acclaimed.

A couple new features are very much in synch with the templates set by those two original “Australian New Wave” classics, with The Dry offering another variation on the “Hell is an outback town” melodrama Wake In Fright pioneered (to strenuous objections from offended Aussies at the time). High Ground, meanwhile, further extends the line of cinematic apologies for the historic treatment of Aboriginals that went from Walkabout through such more recent period pieces as Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Nightingale

Based on popular crime novelist Jane Harper’s first book, The Dry is a straightforward mystery thriller given a no-nonsense adaptation by director Robert Connolly (The BankThree Dollars). Eric Bana plays Falk, a Melbourne-based police detective who hasn’t been back to his dusty home town Kiewarra for many years. Nor has he been missed, since he remains tainted by association with the death of a teenage girl that his adolescent best mate Luke was then going out with.

When a likewise now-middle-aged Luke, his wife, and child are found dead in an apparent murder-suicide, Falk shows up for the funeral, and begins poking around. What he finds fast suggests the case is not what it appears, as meanwhile his sleuthing is complicated by hostile locals and his own stirred memories of what happened three decades earlier. 

As stylistically plain as it is plotty, The Dry is satisfying as a mystery—this story does really go somewhere, springing a couple good surprises (even if a climactic one has been overexploited in fictional narratives for a while now). However, it’s not particularly special as a movie, despite the strong cast. Connolly could have eked much more artful atmosphere from the setting, which feels like a stock “town gone bad” differentiated from the terrain of a thousand old B-grade Westerns only by geography. 

Nevertheless, a narrative pull this strong is nothing to sneeze at, and one can see why The Dry (released on home turf just earlier this year) has already become one of the most popular Australian movies with local audiences in years. Its US release encompasses Bay Area theaters including the Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas. 

Going straight to On Demand and digital platforms is Stephen Johnson’s High Ground, which is likewise a twisty tale, though also a deeper one. The principal figures amongst its fairly large cast of characters are Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), nearly the sole survivor of an Aboriginal village’s massacre in 1919, and Travis (Simon Baker), the soldier who saved him when what was intended as a “peaceful expedition” by uniformed whites turned into a bloodbath of racist panic. 

Twelve years later, Gutjuk is no longer a boy but a young man, still living on the Christian mission outpost he’d been deposited in. But his uncle Baywara (Sean Mununggur), another survivor of the original attack, now leads an elusive “mob” that’s been destroying settlers’ farms. Natch, his loyalties are torn, particularly after he’s drafted as interpreter and guide to find the rampaging fugitive. Representing a full range of attitudes towards Aboriginal rights (and the wrongs done them) are not only the sympathetic Travis and missionary types, but “half-caste” bounty hunter Braddock (Ryan Corr), venomous officer Eddy (Callan Mulvey), and their mutual commander Moran (81-year-old Jack Thompson, who was in Wake in Fright). 

Though it’s certainly violent enough, High Ground is not as graphically brutal an indictment of Australia’s past racial policies as The Chant of Jimmy BlacksmithUtu, or the recent Nightingale. Indeed, perhaps most important among this film’s many strengths is that it weaves such a complicated moral tapestry, putting characters in conflict with their own biases and beliefs as well as those of others. Even if it may spring one or two twists too many in the end, Chris Anastassiades’ ambitious script is terrific. It’s beautifully realized by Johnson, his crew and a vivid cast. The Dry may be the bigger commercial success by far, but High Ground is the Australian movie more likely to end up on my year-end best list. 

Other new releases of note: 

Dream Horse

At least since The Full Monty nearly a quarter-century ago, we’ve routinely gotten movies of its general ilk: The sometimes vaguely fact-inspired UK ensemble piece in which a gallery of colorful downtrodden types band together to put on a show, or something like, en route triumphing over adversity and delivering plenty of inspirational uplift. Most such enterprises deliver laughter-’n’-tears as formulaically as if their scripts had been spat out by a computer, and give me hives. 

However, there are exceptions—like The Full Monty—where it all works, sincerity overcoming familiarity to genuinely rousing effect. Now added to their ranks is Euros Lyn’s feature, which in turn is somewhat based on a prior documentary (the 2015 Dark Horse) and a globally well-publicized human interest story. Their shared gist is something right out of Damon Runyon: A group of townies in a sleepy former South Wales mining burg improbably pool their money to buy and train a racehorse, something that is normally the prerogative of the idle rich. They don’t necessarily anticipate success—they’re just desperate for some, any excitement in their rather dreary lives.

Of course there are speed bumps, and no one need tell you this is not the kind of movie that is going to end on a note of sobering defeat. But as predictable as Neil McKay’s screenplay is in general arc, there is considerable nuance and pleasure in its handling, from the very exciting eventual race sequences to a first-rate cast including Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Sian Phillips, and others. Dream Horse is the kind of feel-good exercise you may want to feel superior to. But it does actually feel good when it manages to hit all the anticipated emotional marks sans pandering, making for a guilt-free crowdpleaser. A plus is the soundtrack full of pop musicians (from Tom Jones to Super Furry Animals) you may have forgotten were Welsh, or never knew. Dream Horse opens in theaters Fri/21, arriving on VOD June 11.

Road trips: “Two Lottery Tickets” and “Drunk Bus”

Similar seriocomic tales of protagonists attempting to lift themselves out of the dumps are displayed in two modest but pleasant movies arriving in limited theaters and VOD platforms this weekend. 

It’s taken a while for Two Lottery Tickets to get here—it was a big hit in Romania, but that was five years ago. Dinel (Dorian Boguta) is a garage owner sorely in need of money so he can bring his wife back from a job situation turned bad in Italy. But while everyone wants his cash, no one seems to be paying what they owe him. Desperate, he goes in on a lottery ticket with mates Sile (Dragos Bucur), a compulsive gambler, and Pompiliu (Alexandru Papadopol), an amateur conspiracy theorist. Miraculously, they hit the jackpot—but only after Dinel gets his fanny pack (with the winning ticket inside) heisted by a couple random thugs. This ultimately sends the trio on a road trip to Bucharest in search of the thieves, and the fortune those louts don’t even know they’ve stolen. 

This may sound atypically caper-ish for Romanian cinema, in which humor (when present at all) is often of the bleakest stripe. But Lottery actually doesn’t fall too far from the familiar regional arthouse-fare tree, as the comedy it offers is of a variety more droll, deadpan, and anecdotal than broadly funny. 

Likewise predominantly low-key, despite some raunchy bits (that constitute the weaker moments here), is US indie Drunk Bus, a first feature for co-directors John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke. “Inspired by real shit,” Chris Molinaro’s script has Charlie Tahan as Michael, a depressed college dropout still living in his midwestern college town, unable to move on emotionally or otherwise since his longtime girlfriend (Kara Hayward) left him. Meanwhile, he pays the bills driving the night shift on a campus loop bus, meaning he’s constantly dealing with drunk frat boys and other assholes. After one altercation, he’s assigned a security guard in hulking, facially tattooed Samoan Pipeapple (Pineapple Tangaroa, apparently sorta playing himself), who appoints himself joyless Michael’s tough-love, party-hearty guru. 

There’s not a lot of substance here, some of the humor is cheapish, and a supposedly liberating ending is the kind of lazy copout that really leaves the protagonist going nowhere…in a stolen vehicle, yet. Nonetheless, Drunk Bus is surprisingly rather sweet and touching after a while, with nice subplots and a friendly overall tenor that paves over the script’s potholes. Filmrise is distributing it to limited theaters and VOD. 

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