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 “Spectre”

For movie fans “sequels,” “prequels” and “reboots” are often looked at as dirty words.  The complaint usually goes something like, “Aren’t there any original ideas in Hollywood anymore?”  An exception to this criticism is the James Bond franchise.  After six actors and 24 movies, fans of the series wait for the next installment with nearly unbearable anticipation and the worldwide box office for these films continues to grow to record heights.  After the brilliant “Skyfall,” expectations were understandably high for “Spectre” considering the name of a classic Bond villain was the title of the film.  At the same time, is it possible to make a movie as enjoyable as its predecessor?  Let’s find out.

After creating chaos and destruction on an unauthorized trip to Mexico City, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is suspended by his MI6 boss M (Ralph Fiennes).  M is also facing a shake-up in British intelligence with a new boss, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), overseeing a recently merged MI5 and MI6.  Denbigh thinks the double-0 program is a relic of the past and wants it discontinued.  He also is spearheading a new intelligence sharing initiative involving nine nations.  Enlisting the aid of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Bond continues his off-the-books investigation he started in Mexico into an organization that appears to be involved in numerous terrorist attacks around the world.  Along the way he meets the widow of a man he killed in Mexico (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of a man that has plagued him since he became 007 (Lea Seydoux) and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), a mountain of a man who doesn’t think twice about killing anyone in his way.

Comparing “Spectre” to “Skyfall” is a bit unfair as the previous film had an unexpected gooey center of emotion with the relationship between Judi Dench’s M and Bond.  “Spectre” lacks that humanizing element as this adventure is a more straight-ahead action picture.  While there is romance it is more of the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em variety we have grown to expect from Bond.  Also, “Spectre” is more of an effort to reboot the mythology of Bond as this is the first time in over four decades the filmmakers have been allowed to make reference to the criminal organization of the title after a long court battle.  Connecting events across three previous films that were not necessarily written to be connected might be seen as a stretch to some; however, the references to the previous films are handled mostly visually and it isn’t the kind of distraction it might have otherwise been.

As we’ve come to expect, Daniel Craig is the epitome of detached cool as James Bond.  The character is given a few more one-liners than in previous films and Craig is more than up to the challenge of being funny in the face of beautiful women and dangerous henchmen.  Craig has been the honest face of James Bond.  He looks world-weary, tired and suspecting of everyone he can see.  Craig is the Bond I will most miss when his run is over as he is to me the most believable in the role.  I know there are those that are fans of Connery or Moore and have been unhappy with every actor chosen to play the part since; however, the difference between those films and Craig’s is so striking they may as well have been about the Revolutionary War.

Now for my issues with “Spectre:” While both Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista are excellent as Franz Oberhauser and Mr. Hinx respectively, they are criminally underused in the film.  I understand keeping your main villains in the shadows of your trailers and TV spots but your antagonists should be front and center in the film.  The movie is nearly two and a half hours long and, while I didn’t have a stopwatch keeping track of their time, I believe both Waltz and Bautista are on screen less than most Bond baddies.  Bautista has one word in the script but he doesn’t need more as his physical presence speaks volumes.  Mr. Hinx has a fight on a train with Bond that seems to have some real danger to it.  Perhaps it was the close quarters or Hinx physical domination of Bond that made it seem so personal and perilous.  Hinx is a henchman I hope we get to see again.  Waltz is charismatic and intense in the role and should have had a greater chance to shine.  While he makes the most of his limited time I would have liked to see him more.

The underused villains are connected to my next issue with the movie:  The story seems to have been given less thought and in other films.  I can’t give too many details for this as I don’t want to spoil the movie; however, there are things I expected to see in the movie, things suggested by history and the plot, that don’t materialize and other aspects that spring from very little.  Some characters are dispatched in ways that suggest they may return but don’t.  Romances blossom in ways that aren’t supported by events.  Plot twists are telegraphed in less than subtle ways.  It sometimes feels like the locations and the stunts received a great deal more attention than the story.

As with all Bond films, the cinematography and locations are spectacular.  From a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City to the Spectre headquarters in the middle of the desert, the movie is a travelogue of beautiful scenery shot with remarkable care.  Even the interior of a train looks luxurious and inviting when it isn’t being torn apart by a fight between Bond and Hinx.  Despite what is likely the dull nature of actual spy work, the Bond films make it look like the ultimate worldwide vacation with the occasional fight to the death thrown in to make it interesting.

“Spectre” is rated PG-13 for language, intense sequences of action, sensuality, some disturbing images and violence.  From planes chasing SUV’s to two sports cars tearing through the streets of Rome, there are several action set pieces in the film that might upset the youngest and most sensitive viewers.  There are also several fights between Bond and various people.  The most intense is the one on the train with Mr. Hinx.  There is a scene of torture that isn’t graphic but is troubling.  A couple of people get pushed out of a helicopter to their deaths.  Bond has two sex scenes but, in traditional Bond style, there is very little nudity.  Foul language is scattered and mild.

I liked “Spectre” a great deal; but, it works for the most part as a fairly standard Bond adventure.  After the enormous success of “Skyfall” there was very little chance we wouldn’t be a little disappointed by the next installment of the franchise.  With all the promise of the title and the expectations of what we might get “Spectre” comes across as somewhat paint-by-numbers when we all wanted a Picasso.  All that said, it is still a very good action/adventure movie with some interesting concepts and the promise of another chapter of the story still to be told in what would likely be Daniel Craig’s last time in the tuxedo and sports car of Bond…James Bond.

“Spectre” gets five stars but not without a few reservations.

This week, it’s the end of a franchise, a possible new holiday tradition and a crime thriller all hoping to get your entertainment dollar. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2—

The Night Before—

The Secret in Their Eyes—

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