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

Reviews of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “The Shape of Water”

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Four high school students are sentenced to detention for various infractions. Their punishment includes cleaning out an old storage room. There they find an old video game system with one cartridge of a game called Jumanji. The four plug in the game and select their characters. When they push start the game begins to glow and the students are sucked inside. When they arrive they find themselves in the bodies of their avatars: Dr. Xander Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillen). Each has a unique set of skills, strengths and weaknesses and each has three lives. A non-playable character named Nigel (Rhys Darby) tells the players about how the land of Jumanji is under a terrible curse after an explorer named Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) stole the Jaguar’s Eye from a statue giving him control of all the animals in the land. The players must put the Eye back where it belongs in order to win the game and exit. They must also do so without losing all three of their lives otherwise they will really die.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a perfectly decent action/fantasy/comedy. Its appealing cast delivers high-octane performances in a video game scenario with plenty of stunts and special effects to keep the story, if you want to call it that, moving. The two hour run time of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” goes by quickly and the film has little in the way of slow spots. So why don’t I care more about the characters or the outcome of the film? Maybe because I know there’s going to be a happy ending with no surprises (there is and there aren’t). Perhaps it has something to do with cynically slapping “Jumanji” on a movie that has very little to do with the original film. Whatever the reason, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a perfectly fine diversion from life but it doesn’t really have a reason to exist.

I suppose it could be argued the movie does encourage the viewer to accept one’s self, including your strengths and your flaws, and live life without fear and regret. It’s a simplistic message but one that younger viewers should hear; but it seems unlikely they will pick up on this message when the movie is much more focused on the wish fulfillment of its primary character going from weak nerd to super buff hero. He does still have the fears and lack of confidence of his real world counterpart but that falls to the wayside as he gains more experience in the game.

All the avatars retain their real world personalities; but the big and strong high school football star and the pretty and popular girl both become weaker and less attractive characters while the nerd and the social outcast gain strengths and abilities they lack. The weak become the strong and the leaders become followers. The transition is difficult for them all but through living life on the other side of the physical and emotional equation all the characters learn how to accept others for what they are. With a bit more focus on the characters and their journey the film might have had a bit more impact. With the spotlight on the action and the humor the movie packs less of a punch.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is rated PG-13 for some language, adventure action and suggestive content. Various faceless minions are killed in numerous ways including exploding boomerangs, beaten to death and being kicked off motorcycles. The main characters die from being eaten by a hippopotamus, run over by a herd of rhinoceroses, pushed off a cliff, bitten by a snake, eating a piece of cake, shot in the chest and attacked by a jaguar. One character is killed when a scorpion crawls out of the mouth of the bad guy and stings him. The suggestive content is limited to a brief reference to touching a woman’s breast and an attempt to distract some guards with sexy dancing. Foul language is limited and mid.

I didn’t hate “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” despite what it might sound like. The movie has some funny moments and a cast that puts their all into their roles. Younger viewers will probably like it just as the young kids behind me seemed to. They were verbally reacting to the events on screen and one youngster was kicking the back of my seat during the more stressful moments (not so much that I had to ask him to stop, but occasionally). The film clearly has an audience and it is well made. It suffers in my eyes for being so utterly vapid.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” gets four unenthusiastic stars.

The Shape of Water

It’s 1962 and the Cold War is at its peak. Eliza and Zelda (Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer) work in a government research facility as part of the maintenance crew. Eliza is mute. She has scars on both sides of her neck and was found as a child on the banks of a river and raised in an orphanage. Eliza speaks via sign language and Zelda is her interpreter at work. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) also speaks sign language. He is a graphic artist and works from home. A new project begins at the lab lead by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) involving an amphibian creature referred to as the Asset (Doug Jones). Strickland considers the Asset to be an abomination and treats it cruelly. Eliza sneaks into the lab when no one else is around and visits with the creature, feeding him hard boiled eggs and playing him music. Eliza even teaches the Asset a few words of sign language. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the lead scientist on the project but he is also a Russian agent. Strickland and the government want to see if they can figure out the Asset’s anatomy by dissecting it and somehow apply that to helping astronauts breathe. Hoffstetler’s Soviet handlers instruct him to kill the creature and dispose of it to prevent the Americans from getting an upper hand in the space race. Eliza knows of the Asset’s impending death at the hands of the Americans and hatches a plan to break him out of the facility with the help of Giles.

“The Shape of Water” is filled with little moments. Some are important to the story while others are like spackle: They fill in the holes and provide a full and complete canvas for director and co-writer (with Vanessa Taylor) Guillermo del Toro to create a beautiful piece of art. That is what “The Shape of Water” is: A moving portrait of moments that tell a compelling story with a unique visual style.

The little moments that build “The Shape of Water” are both beautiful and ugly: Moments of poetry and pornography. Visions of music, dance and love along with racism, sexism and homophobia, all combining to create a stew of sweet and sour that becomes a satisfying meal of beauty and emotion. It is amazing that a movie about a mythical creature living in the rivers of South America and dragged into the dingy world of the Cold War United States can evoke such powerful emotions and be presented so beautifully. It is an amazing piece of filmmaking by a director hitting his prime right before our eyes.

The performances in “The Shape of Water” are equally beautiful. Sally Hawkins is mesmerizing as Eliza. She is able to convey more with a look than most actors can with pages of monologue. Some might consider playing a mute to be confining but Hawkins is able to express more emotion and thought with an expression than you might think possible. Her use of sign language is subtle and beautiful until she becomes emotional; then her movements become emphatic and almost violent. Hawkins expresses her feelings and thoughts through movement in a kind of ballet that holds the eye and demands the viewer pay attention. It is an amazing performance.

Equally amazing is the work of Doug Jones as the Asset. Encased in a full-body latex suit and head gear, the only way Jones can perform is with his body and movements. He, like Hawkins, is able to express a great deal with just a slight nod or the way he breathes. Jones has been the go-to creature guy for del Toro in several of his films including “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and both “Hellboy” movies. Seeing his performance in “The Shape of Water” makes clear why Jones is so popular with del Toro and other directors looking for the perfect actor to bury under tons of makeup and prosthetics. According to his Wikipedia page, Jones has studied mime and is a contortionist with both of those skill sets coming in handy in his creature career. It’s a tribute to just how good Jones’ performance is that at a certain point you no longer consider the Asset a creature. Jones is able to show you he is more of a child lost in a world he cannot understand. That is the mark of a great performance.

There are so many wonderful actors doing amazing work in “The Shape of Water” it is difficult to give them all their due credit. Michael Shannon is a scary but sympathetic villain. Richard Jenkins will break your heart with the more we learn about him and how he is just looking for love and a place to fit in. Octavia Spencer is the best friend struggling with a difficult marriage and having to deal with the prejudice of 1960’s America. Michael Stuhlbarg is the enemy but is more of a hero than anyone working for the government. There are more great performances in this movie than you usually find in three films.

“The Shape of Water” is rated R for language, graphic nudity, sexual content and violence. We see Eliza nude on a couple of occasions. We also see her masturbating a couple of times. A character has two fingers bitten off by the Asset and there is a great deal of blood. We also see a couple of characters shot, one is shot in the face and another in the head. We see one of those shot characters tortured for information. Foul language is fairly common but not overwhelming.

I couldn’t stop thinking of “The Shape of Water” for hours after I saw it. A song used in the film, “You’ll Never Know,” would play in my head and I would be close to tears as memories of what I’d just seen would flash in my mind. I can think of no movie that has affected me so profoundly in my entire life. It may sound silly but I thing “The Shape of Water” has made me a better person. See it and allow the film to make a change in you as well.

“The Shape of Water” gets five stars.

It’s the end of the year and the release schedule is a bit thin so I’ll be seeing and reviewing at least one of the following films that are in limited release:

Darkest Hour—

Molly’s Game—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast for the latest movie and streaming news. Our next episode will be available on January 8, 2018. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to

Review of “Elvis & Nixon”

Just before Christmas in 1970, the biggest rock and roll star in the world, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon), is sitting in his Memphis mansion of Graceland watching three TV’s simultaneously. Flipping through all the channels, Elvis comes across various news reports about a protest against the Vietnam War, illegal drug use and radical minority groups demanding civil rights. Disgusted with the condition of America, Elvis shoots all three TV’s with his ever present .45. Elvis goes to the Memphis airport and boards a plane for Los Angeles to pick up his friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) who works as a film editor for a movie studio. Elvis convinces Jerry to accompany him on a trip to Washington D.C. On the flight to the nation’s capital, Elvis writes a letter on American Airlines stationary to President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) offering to become an undercover drug enforcement officer. Elvis and Jerry hand deliver the letter to a gate at the White House where it gets into the hands of Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), Deputy Assistant to the President. He then takes it to fellow presidential assistant Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and the two take the letter to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) arguing that having a popular figure like Elvis seen meeting the President could boost his likability with a broad cross-section of voters. Haldeman reluctantly agrees and allows Chapin and Krogh to approach Nixon with the idea. Nixon says no but when Jerry and fellow Elvis friend Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) meet with the White House aides, Jerry suggests involving Nixon’s daughters. Unable to say no to his daughter Julie, Nixon reluctantly agrees to see Elvis.

Based at least in part on an actual event, “Elvis & Nixon” takes a lighthearted approach to the subject matter turning a meeting between two of the most iconic figures in American history into a farce. Both men are utterly clueless about each other and about real life, turning their get together into a comedy of inappropriate behavior and ridiculous requests. As funny as this part of the movie is, the true strength of “Elvis & Nixon” is the relationships between the singer and his friend Jerry Schilling, as well as the work relationship between Dwight Chapin and Egil Krogh. Both are stellar examples of actors perfectly cast in well-written parts.

First and foremost, praise must be liberally heaped on to the two actors in the title roles. Both Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey are brilliant as Elvis and Nixon. Each could be forgiven for turning their characters into the kind of silly impressions we’ve seen on numerous television shows; however, each man does subtle things to suggest they are the character while bringing unique aspects to these two well-known men.

Shannon gives Elvis a quiet dignity while at the same time infusing the music icon with a simplistic view of life and the world. He wants to see the President so that shouldn’t be such a big deal, after all he IS Elvis. The script provides Elvis with a level of depth and understanding of how he is perceived by those around him and by the public that is at times heartbreaking. Elvis knows he has become a caricature and the gold jewelry and sunglasses is part of his costume. He is also aware of how some in his circle see him as a conduit to fame and wealth. Elvis is generous to a fault to those that work for him and he knows how some of his entourage takes advantage of that. While being aware, Elvis can’t help himself as the script makes it clear trying to buy people’s love and appreciation comes from a feeling of insecurity. Despite these fleeting moments of clarity, Elvis is also a bit self-deluded, thinking he can implant himself unrecognized with radical groups and drug dealers to work undercover for the government. This misplaced idea of how he can singlehandedly bring down these perceived threats to the country are almost as sad as his understanding of how some in his posse see him as a bank. Shannon’s dedication to both sides of Elvis’ personality as shown in the script is commendable.

Kevin Spacey, also known for playing another corrupt president in “House of Cards,” does a terrific job portraying Nixon. Showing the famously un-hip president giving in to the demands for a picture and autograph from his daughter, as well as the political benefits of being seen with one of the most popular entertainers in the world, shows the most powerful leader in the world capitulating to the desires of his then 22-year old youngest child. Spacey does a pretty good impression of Nixon, emphasizing his hand gestures, stooped posture and his frequently written about feeling of inadequacy. Both with his aides and with Elvis, the script has Nixon express his views about growing up poor, having to work hard with nothing handed to him and his opinion on the looks of Jack Kennedy. Spacey’s performance really comes alive during these bits of dialog as well as when Nixon is angered about something. Never falling into a comedic caricature, Spacey delivers a believable performance of a well-known historic figure.

Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks and Evan Peters all are terrific as Jerry Schilling, Egil Krogh and Dwight Chapin respectively. Schilling is portrayed as a friend of Elvis wanting nothing in return. He merely wants to help his friend fulfill what he sees as a somewhat silly dream. Pettyfer gives an honest and grounded performance. It is also one that by the end of the movie sees the character grow into something different than when the film starts. Pettyfer is one of the few people within the Memphis Mafia that is able to tell Elvis the truth and isn’t looking to get anything from the relationship except friendship. Both Colin Hanks and Evan Peters, wearing simple business suits and slicked back hair, are the epitome of political underlings. Close to power but without any real power of their own, Krogh and Chapin are enthusiastic about their work in the White House but realistic about the man they work for. They see his weaknesses and attempt to mold what they say to the President in a way that will mostly likely guarantee acceptance of their ideas. It is a masterful bit of writing and it is delivered with zest and enthusiasm by Hanks and Peters.

The overall story of the film, while somewhat inconsistent, manages to capture the period of the early 1970’s and the different Americas contained within the one country. The separation of black and white culture, one that largely still exists today, is put into stark contrast by the film by never showing black and white people in the same places except by necessity. There is an obvious division of race that isn’t seen by Elvis even while he’s in the middle of it. The paranoia of Nixon and those on the right about the various movements within the country as well as the ramping up of the war on drugs is also captured by the movie. The whole point of Elvis desire to meet with the President springs from the feeling the U.S. was being overrun by communists and hippies. Law and order and patriotism are what Elvis wanted to spread around the country through his undercover work. Just like almost everyone else, the movie shows Nixon hoping to use Elvis to further his own agenda. Imagine that, a politician using a celebrity for political gain.

“Elvis & Nixon” is rated R for some language. The “F-Bomb” gets dropped by several people over the course of the film. There are also a few scenes of smoking.

While it’s a small film from a director that doesn’t have that many features under her belt, “Nixon & Elvis” deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It isn’t a deep and meaningful film. It doesn’t shine a light on the human condition and illuminate our place in the universe. “Elvis & Nixon” does nothing but entertain, putting two of America’s biggest cultural icons in a room together and letting the goofy chips fall where they may. It is a refreshing respite before the beginning of summer blockbuster season.

“Elvis & Nixon” gets five stars.

The countdown clock to “Captain America: Civil War” is nearing zero but we have one more week before the CG fireworks begin. This week, there’s a cat kidnapping, maternal musings and animated…animations coming to a screen near you. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.


Mother’s Day—

Ratchet & Clank—

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