Welsh town antes up to buy a racehorse

Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), her husband, Brian (Owen Teale, left), and Howard Davies (Damian Lewis) cheer on the racehorse they and their neighbors jointly own in Dream Horse. (Photos by Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street and Topic Studios)

If you like horses and you like Wales, Dream Horse has a lot to offer. But if you also like drama, you’ll find more of it by actually visiting Wales and taking in such impressive sights as Mount Snowdon or one of the country’s ancient castles.

Though based on the fascinating true story of a Welsh village that sponsored a racehorse named Dream Alliance, the filmmakers are too polite and easy-going to turn it into a scintillating tale. Director Euros Lyn and writer Neil McKay, both of whom have worked mainly in television, seem loathe to put either their characters or their viewers through much hassle as the film trots through its predictable paces.

The central protagonist is Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), who holds down two jobs and looks after her aging parents while her unemployed husband, Brian (Owen Teale), mostly lolls in front of the TV. Not surprisingly, Jan is a bit dissatisfied with her existence. So when a bar patron named Howard Davies (Homeland’s Damian Lewis) tells her about the practice of forming a syndicate to own a racehorse, she gloms onto the idea.

In no time, she’s passing out fliers and calling a town meeting for anyone who wants to ante up a few pounds for the chance to make a few more pounds. At first it seems like no one will show up, but then a whole bunch of people show up—only to be left in darkness as the electricity cuts out. No problem. Someone just drops a few coins in the meter and they’re off, literally, to the races.

The meeting largely sets the pattern for the rest of the film: Problems arise, only to be solved with a minimum of complications or surprises. The result could be called a feel-good movie, if you don’t mind also feeling a little bored.

Jan (Toni Collette) and Dream Alliance share a post-race moment.

The story really should have been more interesting, as it involves a frankly risky venture: The syndicate members have to buy a mare, mate her to a talented sire and hope she gives birth to an equally talented offspring.

One reason the flick doesn’t live up to its potential is that we don’t know enough about most of the characters to understand why they’re willing to take the chance. Since they live in a former mining town, it would seem logical that they need a new source of income, but we mostly get the sense that they simply want an escape from their everyday routines.

The same goes for the two characters we do know something about: Jan and Howard. Jan, as stated, is bored with her life and marriage, while Howard longs to escape from his humdrum job as a tax accountant. Actors Collette and Lewis are capable of creating interesting and complex characters, but here they’re never given the chance. (Their Welsh accents are impeccable, though.)

If there’s one thing that helps to make up for the film’s lack of drama, it’s the musical soundtrack. The action is regularly punctuated with uplifting ballads, the most uplifting of all being the Welsh national anthem, which is sung lustily prior to a key race.

Even more fun is the song that accompanies the closing credits. Paying homage to the country’s patron saint of pop music, the cast takes turns singing the Tom Jones hit “Delilah.” It’s an irresistible moment, one of the few in this good-natured but uninspired telling of what should have been an inspiring tale.

(Note: The real-life story of Dream Alliance was told earlier—and, by some accounts, better—in Louise Osmond’s 2015 documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance. It is available through YouTube and other VOD outlets.)

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Dream Horse opens May 21 in theaters nationwide, including Central Ohio’s AMC Easton Towne Center 30, Cinemark Movies 16-Gahanna, Cinemark Polaris 18, Crosswoods 17 and Pickerington 17. It will be available through VOD outlets beginning June 11.

Sly script and unlikely casting fuel delightful whodunit

Knives Out detectives
Private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, left) searches for clues with the help of police Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, center) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). (Photo by Claire Folger/MRC II Distribution Co.)

By Richard Ades

Unfolding like a typical murder mystery, Knives Out dares viewers to answer the all-important question: Who cast Daniel Craig as a Southern private eye?

No, actually, the question is: Who killed Harlan Thrombey? As for Craig, it eventually becomes apparent that the erstwhile James Bond was cast as Virginia gumshoe Benoit Blanc simply for the hell of it, or perhaps as a sign that writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) plans to have a little fun with the genre film.

And with the help of Craig and additional big-name stars, that’s just what he does.

The tale starts out conventionally enough. After a housekeeper finds successful mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer) with his throat slit on the morning after his 86th birthday, police Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) begin investigating. Forensic evidence points to a suicide, but there are reasons to suspect foul play.

Not the least of them is the presence of Blanc, who is helping with the investigation after being hired by someone whose identity even he doesn’t know. Why would an anonymous benefactor pay the “gentleman detective” big bucks to investigate a suicide?

With Blanc’s help, the police also discover that several members of Harlan’s extended family—all of whom were present for his birthday party the night before—had motives for wishing him harm. Flashbacks show that Harlan had last-minute confrontations with others over misdeeds ranging from larceny to an extramarital affair. In some cases, he simply decided they were no longer worthy of his financial support.

Those caught up in the web of suspicion include:
• Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul and Harlan’s daughter
• Richard (Don Johnson), Linda’s husband
• Ransom (Chris Evans), their playboy son
• Walt (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s son, who runs his publishing house
• Donna (Riki Lindhome, Walt’s wife
• Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Walt and Donna’s internet-trolling son
• Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru and widow of Harlan’s older son
• Meg (Katherine Langford), Joni’s daughter

Knives Out Marta in middle
Embroiled in Harlan Thrombey’s murder investigation are (from left): Trooper Wagner and Lt. Elliott (Noah Segan and LaKeith Stanfield); Harlan’s caretaker, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas); his grandson, Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans); and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

Also around, but considered beyond suspicion, are Fran (Edi Patterson), Harlan’s housekeeper; Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), his loving nurse; and “Great Nana” Wanetta Thrombey, Harlan’s ancient and mostly silent mother.

As the investigation proceeds, Marta becomes an increasingly important resource to Blanc and the police. A young immigrant with an undocumented mother at home, she earns Blanc’s trust because (1) she clearly was Harlan’s closest friend and (2) she has an odd, if disgusting, disorder that renders her incapable of lying without vomiting.

With its plethora of suspects and red herrings, Knives Out at first resembles a typical murder mystery. Surely, we think, it’s only a matter of time before Blanc arrives at the truth. But then writer/director Johnson confounds our expectations by allowing us to learn what happened while the investigators are still in the dark—except that he doesn’t really, because there’s still a last-minute reveal that will take pretty much everyone by surprise.

Further differentiating the flick from the average whodunit is its class-consciousness. Marta, as portrayed by de Armas, comes off as a kind-hearted caretaker who’s been treated shabbily by Harlan’s entitlement-blinded relatives. Not only do they fail to invite her to her beloved patient’s funeral, but they can’t even remember what country she’s from.

In short, Knives Out amounts to sly, quirky fun brought to life by a great, committed cast. Leading it all, Craig revels in the role of the drawling, cigar-smoking Blanc, who may or may not live up to his reputation as a brilliant detective. As with everything else in the flick, we just have to wait and see.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Knives Out (PG-13) opens Nov. 27 at theaters nationwide.