Toni Collette

Dream Horse

09/06/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Yeah, yeah, we’ve seen it all before. A British film about a bunch of working-class people, cast adrift by the closure of whatever industry has kept them going, left to fend for themselves, lost, broke and frightened. Until – hurrah! – they’re saved, thanks to their plucky can-do attitudes and a sense of community… Miners saved by joining a brass band, steelworkers redeemed by stripping, you know how it goes. And yeah, it’s all very inspiring, but somehow it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, because what’s it saying? That our government doesn’t owe us a duty of care; we just need to dig deep enough, try hard enough, find our own way out of the mire? I don’t buy it.

But I really like this film, written by Neil McKay and directed by Euros Lyn. I just do. I’m not really expecting to, but I can’t help myself. My heartstrings are well and truly tugged.

It’s very, very Welsh. And, as a Welsh person who no longer lives in Wales, I find myself filling up as Katherine Jenkins sings Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the crowds at the racecourse joining in, and when the Cefn Fforest locals line the streets, singing Bread of Heaven. There’s quite a lot of singing, actually – which is no bad thing.

The plot is no great shakes. It’s based on the true story of supermarket cashier Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), her unemployed husband, ‘Daisy’ (Owen Teale), and city accountant Howard Davies (Damien Lewis), who make a plan to breed their own racehorse. Jan has experience of breeding greyhounds and pigeons, and Howard has previously owned a racehorse – which was so expensive it nearly cost him both his home and his marriage. But they’re all trapped and fed up, and this plan offers them a glimmer of hope. However, they can’t afford it alone. And so the syndicate is born, and – although only twenty-three people actually commit to stumping up the ten pounds a week required for part-ownership – it seems like the whole village is invested in the group’s success.

First, the Vokes buy an injured mare named Rewbell. Then, they breed her to Bien Bien, a thoroughbred stallion. The resulting foal is Dream Alliance, owned by the syndicate, and trained by Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). Howard warns the syndicate that they are unlikely to make much money from their horse – that they have to be “in it for the hwyl,” not financial gain. This proves to be wise advice. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Dream Alliance becomes a relative success (because it would be a very different kind of movie if the venture were a flop), but no one makes more than a couple of grand. The hwyl though. The hwyl. That’s life-changing.

There’s such a lot of hope in this film, such a lot of joy. The importance of simple camaraderie, of sharing a goal, of feeling part of something; it’s all writ large here. Kerby (Karl Johnson) is a shambling alcoholic until the syndicate gives him new hope; widow Maureen (the inimitable Siân Phillips) finally has something other than Tunnock’s teacakes (delicious thought they are) to divert her. The whole crew take a minibus to the races and crash into the owners’ bar, claiming their place among the elite with their heads held high. It’s glorious. And there is, genuinely, some real suspense in those final furlongs.

If you’re looking for something to raise your spirits, Dream Horse is it.

Enjoy. Mae’n grêt.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Stowaway

04/05/21

Netflix

There’s a familiar shaggy dog story which concerns four passengers on a stricken airplane, who discover that they have only been issued with three parachutes and must therefore decide which of them is going to have to make do without one. Will a passenger do the decent thing and volunteer? Or will they simply opt to push one of the others out of the door? I wonder if writer/director Joe Penna took his inspiration from that same tale? At any rate, what we have here is a futuristic version of the same conundrum. In space.

Three astronauts embark on what will be a two year mission to Mars. They comprise Captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette, for once given free rein to employ her native accent), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and wide-eyed medical researcher, Zoe Levinson (Anna Kendrick). The actual details of their mission are somewhat nebulous, but that’s not the main concern of this story, which is far more interested in moral dilemmas.

The plot kicks in when the three crew members discover an injured man lying inside one of the er… hatches. He is engineer Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) who – in equally nebulous circumstances – has ended up wounded and unconscious onboard. He is quickly patched up by Zoe and, despite being somewhat bewildered to discover he’s not going home for two years, seems a nice enough fellow, determined to fit in with three strangers. But his presence on the spaceship has caused complications, not least of which is the fact that his prone body has somehow damaged a vital bit of equipment and… there will now only be enough oxygen to allow three people to reach Mars safely.

In short, one of them needs to die, fairly promptly. Unless of course, they can come up with a better er… parachute.

Stowaway is an unashamedly low budget affair and, while it manages to make the interior of the ship thoroughly believable, whenever the characters are required to step outside of it, the result looks like a less convincing version of Gravity. This is particularly evident in an extended sequence where David and Zoe undertake a perilous space walk along a constantly rotating structure in order to reach some oxygen tanks. While it manages to exert a degree of genuine suspense in the telling, this idea has been done before and, it must be said, more convincingly than here, most recently in George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky.

It’s nicely acted by Kendrick and Anderson, who make an appealing double act. Dae Kim and Collette have rather less to do and are mostly required to sit around looking glum. Understandable, under the circumstances.

More importantly, perhaps, that central moral dilemma is never satisfyingly explored and the story’s resolution does feel like a bit of a cop out. Still, this isn’t a total dud. It keeps me reasonably entertained throughout and it’s perhaps only afterwards that I start to seriously question some aspects of the plot. I can only say that Hyperion – the company that organised this mission to Mars – needs to take another look at its safety procedures.

And they should definitely start by providing more parachutes.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Knives Out

25/11/19

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit for our times. Although reliant on the tropes and clichés of the murder-mystery, the delivery makes this a thoroughly modern thriller.

The cast is stellar. Christopher Plummer is Harlem Thrombey: a successful eighty-five-year-old novelist with a penchant for games and a vast fortune to bequeath. The morning after his birthday party, he is found dead, his throat cut in an apparent suicide. But just as the police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Began) are ready to finalise the cause of death, enigmatic private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) turns up, hired by an anonymous client to investigate further.

Thrombey’s children and grandchildren are all present, and it turns out each of them has a motive for his murder – although I won’t reveal the details here. His daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a forbidding businesswoman, visiting with her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), and their feckless son, Ransom (Chris Evans). Thrombey’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), is a gentle soul, but a hopeless case, incapable of making it on his own. He has a wife too (Riki Lindome), and an alt-right-leaning teenager (Jaeden Martell), who spends his time perusing questionable websites on his phone. And finally, there’s Thrombey’s yoga-and-crystal-loving daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), and her student daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford).

As you might expect of the genre, the setting is a remote country house, and so – of course – there are staff too: housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), both of whom prove central to the plot.

There’s an appealing playfulness here, with zingy dialogue and witty repartee, and the performances are as sprightly and assured as you’d expect from these marvellous actors. But the plot is a little predictable: there are no real surprises here, mainly because the various ‘twists’ are too heavily signalled. The middle third sags under the weight of a lengthy red herring, where the focus drifts from the larger-than-life characters and their shenanigans, following instead a more muted, less engaging thread.

Nonetheless, this is a lively and eminently watchable film – just not the masterpiece I hoped that it would be.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Velvet Buzzsaw

08/02/19

On paper, it all looks very promising.

In 2014, writer/director Dan Gilroy gave us Nightcrawler, a brilliant movie with arguably career-best performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Velvet Buzzsaw, set in the LA art world, must surely be an opportunity to pull off a similar trick, making us care about essentially unlikable people… mustn’t it? Unfortunately, the characters who inhabit this movie are such an appalling collection of poseurs that it’s hard not to cheer when awful things happen to them. Which is only the first of its problems.

Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, an influential art critic. One word from this man and an aspiring artist can kiss goodbye to his career (Hmm. I wonder what it’s like to have that kind of influence?). Morf has a bit of a thing for Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works as an assistant to hard-nosed art dealer, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Josephina has lately been struggling in her career but an unexpected opportunity arises when reclusive artist Vetril Dease drops dead at an art launch and she chances upon a massive haul of his paintings hidden in his apartment. Despite the fact that Dease left strict instructions that his work should be destroyed in the event of  his death, Josephina steals his pictures and, with the help of Vandewalt and Haze, sets about selling them to the highest bidders. But Dease was a troubled soul and his paintings have taken on certain aspects of his personality – probably because he used bits of his own body tissue when mixing his paints.

To be fair to Gilroy, he sets out his stall expertly, skewering the world of contemporary art and pointing out that, in this day and age, it is inextricably bound up with commerce. In this film, people cannot mention an artist without pointing out how much his or her work is currently selling for. But having created this world, Gilroy seems to have nowhere interesting to take his characters, except along an extremely well worn path of bumping them off in increasingly unpleasant circumstances. Which would be all right, if it weren’t for the fact that this is supposedly a horror movie and it fails comprehensively to generate any sense of terror. More damning is its predictability. The demise of rival art dealer Gretchen (Toni Collette) is so clumsily signalled, you know what’s going to happen to her well before she does.

And then there’s the little matter of the film’s own internal logic. Many of the deaths here  really don’t make sense in terms of the premise that has already been established. That catchy title by the way, refers to Rhodora Haze’s previous incarnation as a member of a punk band of the same name. It also leads to one of the film’s most tenuous plot twists.

This Netflix Original has certainly divided opinion. I’ve heard a lot of people decrying it and just a few speaking up in its defence, but I have to say I’m with the naysayers. This is, frankly,  a massive disappointment.

Interested parties can find our review of Nightcrawler here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2014/11/03/nightcrawler/

2.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Hereditary

14/06/18

The advance buzz about this film has been powerful. There have been comparisons to The Exorcist – the movie that in 1973, caused me to write my first ever film review, a habit that has continued unbroken ever since. In its central theme, however,  Hereditary is much closer to another classic, Rosemary’s Baby, but – while it certainly has much to recommend it – it’s not really in the same league as either of those other horror milestones; moreover, it’s fatally compromised by an ending that’s so risible, it actually causes audience laughter in the screening I attend.

After the death of her estranged and secretive mother, Annie (Toni Collette), an artist who specialises in recreating scenes from her life in miniature, starts to unravel a series of clues from the odds and ends her mother left behind. Her 13 year old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), has clearly been powerfully affected by her grandmother’s death, behaving in a strange and very disconcerting manner, while her older brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), is more interested in the popular teenage pursuits of getting stoned and laid. Annie’s accommodating husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), just tries to keep everything rubbing along as best he can. But when Peter is a key player in a tragic and accidental death, something evil seems to settle around the house like a shroud, exerting an increasingly powerful grip…

The first thing to say about Hereditary is that first time writer/director Ari Aster has forged a powerful and highly effective debut. Eschewing the fast-paced jump cuts of many contemporary horror films, this is a real slow burner, a simmering pressure cooker that only gradually comes to the boil and manages to instil in the viewer an overpowering sense of creeping horror. The cinematography eerily manages to mix Annie’s doll’s house imagery with the actual interiors from the rambling, family home, while Toni Collette puts in an extraordinarily accomplished performance in the lead role, managing to convince us that she is genuinely terrified.

But then there’s that awful ending, which – to my mind at least – manages to destroy all the accomplishments that have gone before. And while I appreciate there’s a necessity to tie up the loose ends of the plot, it helps if that plot makes some kind of narrative sense. It must be said that other reviewers seem to have had no problem with this, so perhaps I’m just difficult to please – but trust me, the audience reaction on the evening I view this is pretty unequivocal. However, in an attempt to ensure fairness, I’ve decided to star-rate this film rather differently from our other reviews.

(Most of the film) 4.4 stars

(Last 10 minutes) 1 star

Philip Caveney