Review of “Knives Out”

Successful murder mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, with his throat slit, in the third-floor study of his elegant home the morning after a celebration of his 85th birthday with his entire family. On hand were his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s late son’s wife Joni (Toni Collette) and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), Harlan’s mother Wanetta (K Callan), Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) and his nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana DeArmas). Police believe Harlan’s death is a suicide, but no note is found. A detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by a secretive client to investigate the death of Harlan Thrombey. Blanc knows something is odd about the case as there are plenty of motives amongst the family to kill Harlan, but everyone appears to be accounted for at the time of death. The case takes on a new urgency when Harlan’s will is read leaving everything to Marta. In order to regain their inheritance, the family pushes the police and Blanc to prove Marta is the killer.

I love a good murder mystery. I listen to several true crime podcasts, watch documentaries about serial killers and how they were caught, and enjoy TV shows and movies with twisty, complicated conspiracies to commit unspeakable crimes (watch “Dark” and “Black Spot” on Netflix to get an idea of what I enjoy). One might question my sanity with my viewing history on a couple of streaming services, but I enjoy unraveling the puzzle of the crime. Was it someone familiar with the victim? Was it a stranger in a “wrong place, wrong time” scenario? Was the motive money, anger or love? What would drive someone to violate the most sacred law and take the life of another? In “Knives Out” the motive is clearly money, but the question of “Who dunnit?” requires a brilliant mind and the help of a woman who vomits when she lies.

Rian Johnson, director, producer and writer of “Knives Out,” manages to make it impossible to figure out who the killer is until the final scene. Information is carefully withheld, or hidden in plain sight, that can identify the culprit. It is a masterfully crafted mystery with plenty of loathsome characters, all believably capable of killing Harlan. Johnson also injects political and personal commentary about toxic online culture using the character of Jacob Thrombey, played by Jaeden Martell, as an alt-right internet troll, and Don Johnson’s Richard Drysdale talking about immigrants “waiting their turn” to enter the country legally (Ana DeArmas’ Marta is the daughter of immigrants).

While the cast is huge and loaded with A-List stars, Johnson is smart to focus on three characters: Blanc, Marta and Ransom. This trio is the eye of the storm and Johnson studies them like a plane sent into a hurricane. Each is given a moment to shine, each actor is brilliant in their role and none disappoints when they are in the spotlight.

Chris Evans takes his All-American image from the Marvel Universe and uses Thor’s hammer to destroy it. Evans’ Ransom is a terrible person. A trust fund playboy, Ransom has never made anything of himself. He looks down on common people and believes he’s superior because he was born into a rich family. Despite his odious nature, Evans still give Ransom a touch of decency. After the will is read giving Marta all the fortune, Ransom helps Marta escape the clamoring Thrombey heirs. He wants to help her as he sees being written out of the will as a second chance to make something of himself. His offer to help Marta feels sincere, despite the strings attached, and we are willing to give Ransom the benefit of the doubt. Evans charm and sincerity makes us feel sorry for Ransom and willing to give him a chance.

Ana DeArmas’ Marta is the moral center of the film. She is incapable of lying as it makes her vomit. She is a walking self lie detector. DeArmas makes you feel sympathy for Marta. She’s put into an impossible situation, facing down a ruthless family willing to do anything to reclaim their fortune. She’s been otherwise ignored and seen as just “one of the help” by everyone else, but Marta had a close, familial relationship with Harlan. She didn’t want anything from him other than to take care of him, and he took her into his confidence, knowing he could trust her. Harlan’s death has a profound effect on Marta and DeArmas conveys that pain throughout the film.

Daniel Craig is the main reasons to see “Knives Out.” His Benoit Blanc, referred to as on of the last “Gentleman Detectives,” steals nearly every scene he’s in. He can do as little as strike a note on a piano and the scene changes in tone and tension. Craig lays on a thick Southern accent, slightly different from his drawl as Joe Bang in “Logan Lucky,” that makes every word he says sing like a choir. Some might think the accent is too much, but I loved it. Its sound and phrasing draw in the ear like a homing signal. You can’t ignore anything Blanc says as he might throw in some bit of homegrown wisdom or a unique turn of phrase that adds more color to an already vibrant pallet. He speaks of the mystery being like a donut, and there being a hole in the center of that donut where the solution lies. Then he discovers there’s another donut within the hole of the donut. A donut within a donut. Craig delivers the lines with such excitement and passion you might think he’s about to burst into tears.

The entire cast of “Knives Out” is wonderful, delivering performances of terrible people in beautiful ways. While Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Katherine Langford and Christopher Plummer get the most screen time, the rest of the ensemble fills their roles well without a weakness in the lot. Rian Johnson gives a masterclass in juggling characters and talent with a cast that any director would kill to work with.

“Knives Out” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material. There is a brief fight between two male members of the family. Harlan’s death is shown in a very quick flash. A character is shown near death with a spider crawling on its face. Marta is shown throwing up on a couple of occasions, including in one character’s face. Sexual references are limited to the family asking Marta if she was having sex with Harlan and mentions of a character masturbating. A joint is briefly shown being smoked and there is a reference to using a vape pen. Foul language is scattered and mild.

While “Knives Out” is all about the murder, it also is very funny. Director Rian Johnson clearly intended for the story to have humorous elements, including the actions of the family to be viewed as comical. Still, Johnson knows how to balance the humorous with the mysterious as discovering the identity of the killer is always at the forefront, even when the audience thinks they know who’s responsible. As with all good murder mysteries, you don’t know until you really, really know. And you won’t know until Rian Johnson is ready to tell you.

“Knives Out” gets five very sharp, pointy, dangerous stars.

There’s only one wide release this week, so I may watch and review something available at my local arthouse theater.

Playmobil: The Movie—

Dark Waters—

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Blade Runner 2049”

Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, “retiring” replicants that stop following orders from humans. After dispatching a replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) at the protein farm where he worked and lived, Officer K finds a chest buried at the base of a long dead tree. What is discovered inside begins an investigation that could lead to war unless a secret that’s been buried over 30 years can be kept. Officer K’s investigation leads to him finding retired Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) holed up in an abandoned hotel in deserted Las Vegas. The owner of the company that makes replicants, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), wants to find out where the contents of the chest leads and sends his personal assistant and assassin Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to keep an eye on Officer K and kill anyone that gets in her way.

The plot synopsis of “Blade Runner 2049” is intentionally vague since there is spoiler material practically from the first scene. If staying uninformed about the 35-years-in-the-making sequel to “Blade Runner” is important to you then you should avoid pretty much everything on the internet with the possible exception of a trio of short films that fill in some of the backstory referenced in the film. My personal favorite is “2022,” an anime that is about the blackout that was a major event in this universe. It’s weird when a movie has a bunch of prequel material that’s nearly required viewing so the audience is up to speed. To be a truly entertaining film “Blade Runner 2049” could have used a feature-length prequel film so what happens actually causes some emotion and caring. As it is, this film is pretty to look at and has interesting things happen but I can’t say I care.

“Blade Runner 2049” is a master class in production design. Much like the original film, the look of the near future is as much a character as any actor. The flying cars, the massive holographic advertisements, the crowded apartment buildings and urban sprawl that suggests privacy is something that will die a quick death all make the world of “Blade Runner 2049” feel as real as any created landscape can. The world is probably even more grim than in the original thanks to a nearly constant rain and dark skies in most outdoor settings. We also see an abandoned Las Vegas that has a constantly hazy yellow/orange sky. We don’t know why the city is abandoned but clearly something very bad happened. Holographic representations of Elvis, Sinatra and showgirls are put to good use to make the empty showroom seem even more depressing. So much has gone into the look of the future that it seems the human element has been largely ignored.

There is an emotional pall over the film. Human and replicant life doesn’t count for much in the Los Angeles of 2049. Prostitutes work their trade in store fronts with smoked glass so you can see the girls with clients if they are right up against it. Food vendors are all over and there are kiosks with people selling trinkets of all types. Pets are still artificial and only available to the very wealthy. It is a world where people try to keep their heads down and avoid trouble. Since Ryan Gosling’s Officer K’s job is to charge into trouble he’s hated by pretty much everyone he contacts including his fellow officers. Gosling plays K almost as an automaton with very little emotional range. There’s a good reason for that but I won’t spoil it for you. Since he’s the lead character and practically in every frame of the film his cold and sullen demeanor rubs off on the audience. He’s so emotionally detached it has the effect of making everything in the film feel unimportant. Despite what we’re told about how this case could lead to or stop a war, there’s very little in what happens that creates much in the way of excitement or emotion.

Part of what adds to that lack of caring is a lack of knowledge. I saw all three prequel short films so I probably entered the movie with more information about the world of “Blade Runner 2049” than most; however, it wasn’t enough. For all the proclamations about how the events we watch are world-changing, none of it struck me as being that important. That, I believe, comes from a lack of understanding just what the use of replicants means to the world in the near future. There’s some brief talk about how using them provides the workforce necessary to take care of the basic needs of humanity and grow enough food for an ever expanding population but the film doesn’t help me grasp just how these events could bring about the end of civilization or humanity or whatever. The original “Blade Runner” suffered from a similar lack of importance in my understanding of what made events so reality-altering.

This lack of an emotional hook isn’t helped by a running time of over 150 minutes. There are numerous scenes that are stretched out for what feels like an interminable amount of time. Gosling’s Officer K walks so slowly it’s a surprise when he actually gets somewhere. There are long and loving shots of cityscapes and cars flying between massive skyscrapers and none of them do anything to move the story along. I could have done with fewer and shorter shots of the Los Angeles of the future and more explanation of why I should care.

“Blade Runner 2049” is rated R for nudity, language, some sexuality and violence. There are some fights and some shootings. Some of these are bloody but the violence is scattered throughout the film. We see a few naked women at various times. There are also statues that show a woman’s breasts. We see the beginning of an unconventional three way sexual encounter but there is no nudity of sexual activity shown. The outside of a brothel is shown and we can see the sex workers engaged in activity inside through smoked windows. We see what appear to be monochrome models of replicants that show their sex organs but this is brief. Foul language is scattered.

I’ve said this with other movies but perhaps I’m just not smart enough to fully understand and appreciate the story of “Blade Runner 2049.” I wanted to love the film as it has mostly glowing reviews; but I must admit, I don’t love the original film. It has many of what I perceive as the same problems of being about something in which I’m not emotionally invested. I don’t know how the events of either film are something that can be important to the characters, much less to me. I don’t hate the film. It is visually stunning and is interesting to watch but I just can’t invest myself in the story. Maybe it’s just me but “Blade Runner 2049” is lost on me.

“Blade Runner 2049” gets three stars out of five.

This week there’s an action film, horror movie and a couple of “based on a true story” pictures to choose from. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Foreigner—

Happy Death Day—

Marshall—

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan. Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast available at WIMZ.com, Apple Podcasts, Google Play and everywhere you get podcasts. Send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “War Dogs”

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is struggling trying to find a purpose in life. He’s a licensed massage therapist and is also trying to sell Egyptian cotton sheets to nursing homes in Miami. Neither is going very well. At a funeral he runs into childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) who has recently moved back to Miami after living and working in California. Efraim is selling guns, ammunition and other supplies to the U.S. military, using a government website to look for small contracts on which the larger weapons manufacturers don’t bother to bid. Efraim invites David to join him in his new endeavor called AEY, Inc. after David is told by his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) she’s pregnant. Quickly, Efraim and David are making deals and selling supplies to the U.S. military. They are also making huge amounts of money. A big contract providing Beretta handguns to the Iraqi police force runs into a snag when David and Efraim discover Italian law prevents the guns be shipped directly to Iraq. Efraim arranges for them to be shipped to Jordan then transported to Iraq but that deal falls through. Desperate to fulfill their contract, Efraim and David go to Jordan and hire a driver named Marlboro (Shaun Toub) to get the weapons to Baghdad and discover (when they are attacked) that they are travelling through the infamous Triangle of Death. Efraim thrives on the danger and borderline illegality of the job while David would prefer to stay out of the hot zone. The possibility of a huge military contract to resupply the Afghan military puts David and Efraim in touch with legendary arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who will help them put the deal together with Cold War weapons and ammo from Albania in exchange for a cut of the profits. Girard can’t deal directly with the U.S. Government since he is on a terrorist watch list. The possibility of a huge payday lead Efraim and David to make compromises and take short cuts that could land them in prison.

The thing that makes “War Dogs” so scary is it is based on a true story. Two twenty-something bros managed to get involved in arms dealing at the perfect time. The Bush administration was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and needed to equip millions of U.S. soldiers then needed to re-equip Iraqi and Afghan forces for the post war. The possibility of making enormous amounts of money led not just Packouz and Diveroli but many others to take short cuts in procuring weapons and supplies. “War Dogs” in some ways is like “The Big Short” in that it’s a cautionary tale that will likely be ignored the next time a major conflict breaks out involving the United States. Money has a way of making people forget past mistakes.

Jonah Hill has an amazing and somewhat scary ability to play utterly corrupt individuals with enormous style and believability. His “Wolf of Wall Street” character, while slightly less dangerous, is equally morally bankrupt to Efraim Diveroli. Hill can show us both sides of Diveroli as both the caring friend and the uncaring business partner. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear Diveroli is running a con on everyone he encounters as he tries to take people for whatever he can get out of them. His friend David is no exception. The beauty of Hill’s performance is we hope Diveroli is a decent guy when it comes ot Packouz and, for a while, we believe he is. It is only later in the film it becomes apparent Diveroli only has room in his heart for himself. Hill does an amazing job with the character.

Miles Teller is also great as David Packouz. While his character is less complex than Hill’s, Teller is able to play Packouz as a likeable guy that is looking to become something greater than what he feels he is. He also has a girlfriend and daughter to provide for and that often makes him look the other way as their business dealings get progressively shadier. Teller is the emotional anchor of the film. He is the everyman that represents the audience and gives us a way into this world. Teller’s scarred face, from a near fatal auto accident in 2007, makes us almost immediately feel empathy for his character. This is a face that has seen some hard times and taken on difficulties. While the scars have nothing to do with the character, it adds a layer of sympathy and concern and the audience cares what happens to David.

The underused supporting cast, including the always great Kevin Pollack, fills in the holes of the story quite nicely. Ana de Armas, used primarily as both David’s conscience and eye candy, is locked into a traditionally female role. The loving girlfriend and caring mother to a new baby girl, de Armas gets the dirty job of nagging her boyfriend to not lie about what he’s really doing. I suppose it’s a necessary role to keep the character rooted in the real world. Bradley Cooper is understated as international arms dealer Henry Girard. Girard is quietly dangerous and makes that clear in a scene late in the film. Cooper, who is also a producer on the film, makes the most of his brief appearances and gives the movie a villain other than Diveroli. Kevin Pollack plays a minor supporting character but is always a joy to watch. As he learns exactly the kind of business partner Diveroli is late in the film, the subtle changes in his face make a very tense scene somewhat comical.

The story in “War Dogs” is a bit dense with layer upon layer of deception and misdirection. Quite frankly, the minutiae of their business dealings get a bit tedious at times. Export licenses, government websites and trade embargoes often fill their conversations and it slows down the story quite a bit. When Efraim and David are getting their hands dirty transporting guns across Iraq or visiting a warehouse filled with Cold War weapons and munitions in Albania, the movie feels much more alive and dangerous.

“War Dogs” is rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references. Drug use is very common throughout the film. Both Diveroli and Packouz are shown smoking weed and snorting powder on numerous occasions. Sexual references are scattered but explicit. Foul language is common throughout the film.

“War Dogs” is an example of how huge amounts of money corrupts everything it touches from friends to governments. It turns people into greedy, heartless monsters and governments into…greedy, heartless monsters. While many of the events of “War Dogs” were either exaggerated or invented from whole cloth, it only takes looking at the news or knowing more than one other person to show the basic idea of the film is played out every day in real life all around us. Money is a driving factor for many of our lives as we need it to procure food, shelter, transportation and, to a degree, relationships. Most of us can keep our lives in perspective with the kind of incomes average people make; however, when millions of dollars are within the grasp of someone who places personal wealth above all else, judgement and decency can be considered faults that cannot be afforded. As the old saying goes, the love of money is the root of all evil.

“War Dogs” gets four guitars out of five.

This week your entertainment options consist of dark horror, biographical athleticism and an action reboot. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Don’t Breathe—

Hands of Stone—

Mechanic: Resurrection—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.