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 “Krampus”

Christmas is for children. It’s the kind of sentiment expressed by those who see the holiday as an obligation: Buying presents for people you barely know or don’t like that much because it is expected of you. You must wade into massive crowds of people doing exactly the same thing you are, choosing to purchase anything that might be considered appropriate just to check a name off a list, spending your last dime and/or going into more debt, not out of the spirit of giving but a sense of requirement. While a few people may be able to find some joy in this orgy of consumerism, most feel their soul die a little bit and can’t wait for it to be over. This can lead to an outright death of the Christmas Spirit which opens the door to something much darker: Krampus.

Max (Emjay Anthony) is the youngest child of Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette). It’s almost Christmas and Max wants everyone to enjoy the traditions he’s remembered all his life. Sadly the pressures of preparing for Sarah’s sister Linda and her husband Howard (Allison Tolman and David Koechner) and their four kids and bulldog has sapped the joy from both his parents. His sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) just wants to leave everyone behind and be with her stoner boyfriend. The only person who seems to have any Christmas Spirit is his German grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) as she continues to bake cookies and other treats in the kitchen. The big dinner with the whole family, and the surprise edition of crusty Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), turns into a catastrophe when a couple of Howard’s kids get a hold of Max’s letter to Santa Claus, reading it out loud at the table and exposing some of the barely hidden cracks in both families. Max attacks his cousins and gets the letter back. Later in his room, Max tears up the letter in disgust and throws it out the window where it is sucked up into the sky by a sudden violent wind. Almost immediately a blizzard begins and the power goes out. Everyone assumes the lights will be back on soon but Omi knows something much more ominous is heading their way to punish them for their lack of Christmas Spirit.

“Krampus” is possibly the new American holiday classic that will not be that popular in its initial release but will find a second life and cult following on cable in future years. The opening scenes of chaos at a big box store (customers fighting over stuffed animals, trampling each other, getting tazered by security officers, crying children huddled under Christmas trees) all shown in slow motion and set to a Bing Crosby holiday song could be the stock footage shown on the news on Black Friday. Christmas seems to bring the worst out of some people who are perfectly normal and pleasant any other time of the year. “Krampus” is the kind of movie Fox News would attack as being part of the “War on Christmas” when in fact it is an indictment of consumerism and letting the spirit of the holiday be extinguished by all the peripheral garbage we’ve added on to it.

Everything about the families in “Krampus” screams success: Tom and Sarah have a big, comfortable house that is tastefully furnished, Howard and Linda drive a massive Hummer and their kids are involved in sports both as participants and as fans. Howard even makes a crack about how Tom and Sarah are rich. Despite their apparent monetary success, neither family is shown as being satisfied. Both are examples of the saying “Money can’t buy happiness.” Max is the character that exemplifies the innocence of youth and, by extension, the desire of the audience to be returned to a simpler time as shown in movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas.” Max also shows how that’s impossible and sets off the events that lead to the arrival of Krampus and his evil minions.

While I enjoyed the film and the performances of the excellent cast, I don’t think the filmmakers went as far as they needed to with either the horror or the humor. While the movie features a massive monster you never get a really good look at along with other nasty creatures including deadly gingerbread cookie men, there isn’t really anything scary about the movie. Some scenes promise a fright with a tense build up but the payoffs are rather mild and nothing gets the pulse racing. With several cast members known for their humorous roles, the film is largely devoid of any major laughs as well. Oddly enough the character that most consistently delivers a funny line is Conchata Ferrell’s Aunt Dorothy. She’s ready with a zinger at just about every turn. Even her last line during one of the major action scenes is designed for a laugh. Sadly, the funny isn’t as consistently delivered by the rest of the cast. I understand that considering it’s supposed to be a horror movie; however, the scary isn’t there as much as it needs to be either so the absence of each amplifies the need for both.

“Krampus” is rated PG-13 for some drug material, sequences of horror violence, language and terror. A bong is shown in one scene. There are a couple of scenes where something is under the snow chasing a character and dragging them under with the sound of a “chomp.” We see various scary looking creatures chasing and capturing family members. Guns are fired at various times at the creatures. A Christmas tree gets set on fire nearly destroying the house. Foul language is scattered but there is on “F-bomb.”

I identify with the feelings of young Max in “Krampus” a bit too closely for comfort. I would like to experience the same wonder I did as a child and as a young adult for that matter at the sight of a Christmas tree, the joy from hearing the first holiday song and the tingle of anticipation as the gifts would begin to stack up under the tree. I’m afraid all that is lost to me now as the hassle of crowds in stores and the mounting pressure of how to pay for all the holiday cheer has turned me into a coldhearted grown up. I suppose I’d best prepare my wife for the arrival of the shadow of St. Nicholas and to just accept the consequences. You, on the other hand, can save yourself by making a donation to the charity of your choice instead of buying a couple of needless Christmas gifts for someone who doesn’t want or need anything.

“Krampus” gets four stars out of five.

Only one new film in wide release this week as we prepare for the craziness that is “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” I’ll be seeing and reviewing “In the Heart of the Sea.”

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