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 one 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 “Halloween 2018”

It’s been 40 years since the murderous rampage that wiped out the family and some friends of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). The person responsible for the carnage, Michael Myers (Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) has been locked up in a mental hospital ever since. His physician Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) has agreed to a allow a couple of podcasters, Dana Haines and Aaron Korey (Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall), to talk with Michael. Michael is about to be transferred to a more secure, and less therapeutic, prison and the podcasters want to see if he will speak to them. Dr. Sartain, who took over after the death of Michael’s original psychiatrist Dr. Loomis, tells them Michael can speak but he chooses not to. The podcasters hold up Michael’s mask and get a mild reaction from him, but the other patients begin screaming and howling. Since the attack, Laurie has been preparing herself for the day she feels is inevitable: When Michael escapes and comes for her. Her obsession with security has driven away two husbands and alienated her daughter Karen (Judy Greer). The two women rarely speak. Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is in high school and would like to have a closer relationship with her grandmother. The tension between Laurie and Karen makes that difficult. While Michael is being transferred on a bus with several other mental patients, the bus crashes in a ditch and Michael escapes. Sheriff’s deputy Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) responds to the scene and finds several dead bodies. He soon learns that Michael Myers was on the bus and is unaccounted for. Michael tracks down the Dana and Aaron, kills them and gets his mask back. It’s Halloween night and Michael Myers is on the hunt for more victims and to finish up some 40 year old business.

This sequel to the original 1978 “Halloween” ignores all the sequels from “Halloween II” through “Halloween: Resurrection” and both the Rob Zombie-directed “Halloween” films. The film is a love letter to John Carpenter’s original slasher classic. Carpenter was involved in this movie’s creation and he provided the soundtrack built around his original score. It isn’t the most imaginative horror movie ever made but it is a loving tribute to the original film and to its knife-wielding antagonist as well as the damsel that is no longer in distress.

Written by Danny McBride, Jeff Fradley and David Gordon Green, and directed by Green, this film tells much the same story in much the same way as the original. Michael is an unstoppable killing machine that just can’t quite seal the deal with Laurie. Last time, she would escape by the skin of her teeth. This time, she still just barely escapes but causes more damage than their last meeting. The subject matter is treated as deadly serious in the script but there are moments of levity and a few characters that are strictly for comic relief. It makes this slasher film a bit more entertaining in between gruesome and gory deaths.

Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode is a far more complicated character than her teen scream queen of 40 years ago. Laurie tells Michael’s doctor that she has prayed every day for him to escape so she could kill him. She has turned her home into a fort with an arsenal of weapons, metal security doors that drop from the ceiling and a hidden access to her basement that works on hydraulics. She uses mannequins in her backyard for target practice, has floodlights on her roof that turn day to night and half a dozen locks on her doors to keep her safe. Curtis is a ball of anger and rage and she dominates the screen in ever scene she’s in. Her long grey hair is a symbol of her decades of worry and fear. She is the embodiment of PTSD. Laurie has run off (or worn out) two husbands and lost custody of her daughter at age 12 due to her obsession with preparedness. While she didn’t die at the point of Michael’s blade she has paid a high price for surviving and is hoping for some payback.

The rest of the cast performs their underwritten and underutilized parts as well as could be expected. Andi Matichak is given the most to do as the granddaughter of Laurie Strode. I believe Matichak’s Allyson is being set up as the next obsession of Michael Myers in future sequels. She is given a largely time-wasting subplot involving a boyfriend and a school Halloween dance. This is mostly just an excuse for her to lose her phone, making it impossible for her mother and grandmother to get in touch with her when the Michael hits the fan. Matichak isn’t a great actress but she gives an acceptable performance when she’s asked to look fearful and to scream.

The story of “Halloween” is a bit meandering with several side trips that eventually are made relevant by having a character show up that ties things together. We all know the point of this exercise is for Michael to kill people in gory ways. There are some nasty kills that I’m sure required the special effects shop to work overtime to pull off convincingly. There are also some kills that I found troubling: Namely the death of a preteen boy. Michael strangles then breaks the boy’s neck. This death felt especially gratuitous in a film filled with gratuitous violence. Perhaps the boy’s accidently shooting another character when he was startled is supposed to make it okay for him to be killed by Michael. Another scene in the film shows Michael walking past a crib containing a crying baby. Michael looks at the child and walks past, leaving the infant alone. Is there a line that even Michael won’t cross or was this a choice by the writers fearing the audience would turn against the movie if he killed a baby? Another child, older than the baby but younger than the murdered boy, manages to escape from Michael. We get to know this kid a little bit as he’s being babysat by one of Allyson’s friends. Why does this kid get to live but the first one has to die? The film seems a bit inconsistent with its victim selection. If you’re an adult, you’re fair game. If you’re a teenager, you’re fair game. If you’re 13 and carry a rifle, you’re fair game. Younger than that and you might be safe. It seems a bit arbitrary, especially since Michael is such an indiscriminate killer.

The movie also falls back on the tried and true teenage victim attributes: Sexual exploration, alcohol consumption and weed use virtually guarantee you will die at the hands of Michael Myers. Only one character shown drinking and kissing a sexily-costumed young woman that isn’t his girlfriend survives the night. I suppose if he’d been smoking weed and completed the Devil’s Triangle his fate would have been sealed as well. Many of the victims in slasher films of the 1970’s and 1980’s was participating in these activities as their killers approached. Perhaps Carpenter and others were trying to sneak a morality lesson into their works; but I believe the writers of this film were probably just trying to pay homage to the original “Halloween.”

“Halloween” is rated R for horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity. There are several gory murders including a head being stomped flat, a jaw that appears to have been partially ripped off, a decapitated head with a flashlight stuck in it, various strangling’s, shootings and neck breakings. We see one kid smoking a joint and there is also underage drinking. We see one young woman topless as she’s murdered. Foul language is scattered.

There are many scenes in this film that will remind fans of the 1978 classic. There are tributes dropped in here and there that those with sharp eyes and good memories will find nostalgic. The whole movie is a tribute to that first film as it essentially tells the same story with a few tweaks and twists thrown in to freshen it up a bit. It isn’t scary as we’ve seen all this before. It isn’t original for the same reason. However, it is a well-done homage that is proud of how much it loves that which it is honoring.

“Halloween 2018” gets four stars out of five.

This week there are three new films and I guarantee I’ll see at least one of them and review it.

Hunter Killer—

Indivisible—

Johnny English Strikes Again—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest in TV, streaming and movie news available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.