KNIVES OUT (2019)

November 27, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I suspect ‘fow-uhl’ play.” So states the renowned and poetically named private detective, Benoit Blanc. Of course when mega-wealthy, best-selling author Harlan Thrombey supposedly commits suicide after his 85th birthday party by slashing his own throat with a knife, something more sinister (you know, like … murder) must be considered. The violin playing over the opening shots of the palatial Thrombey manor teases us with thoughts of most any year from the past 75. These nostalgic thoughts fade quickly as we begin to meet the players.

Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (a quite funny Noah Segan) seem merely to be crossing their T’s in the suicide investigation as they dutifully meet with each family member for a statement. It’s this progression of questioning that introduces us to the year’s most colorful ensemble cast. Patriarch Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) scheming heirs-in-waiting include: his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), happy to remind you of her success as a self-made businessperson; Linda’s smarmy husband Richard (Don Johnson); their renegade son Ransom (Chris Evans) who arrives a bit later; Harlan’s son Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) who ‘runs’ the family publishing business; Harlan’s ex-daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a self-help guru who has a secret side gig; grandkids Meg (Katherine Langford), preppy social media troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell), and Donna (Riki Lindhome of “Garfunkel and Oates”); and Harlan’s mother Greatnana (Dallas’ own K Callan). Two key non-family members are the housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) who finds Harlan’s body, and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s friend and only real confidante.

Writer-director Rian Johnson has put together a diverse career with such films as indie breakout BRICK (2005), science fiction hit LOOPER (2012) and of course, STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI (2018). With this latest, he shows a real flair with a rare comedic whodunit, and manages to perfectly execute his twisted script of twisted personalities. Think of this as Agatha Christie meets CLUE via THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The overall mangled morality of this entitled family becomes crystal clear as we get to know each. Johnson presents many familiar elements for fans of the mystery genre (the dark mansion, the creepy line-up of hangers-on, the red-herring clues and missteps), and most impressively, he blends those with many creative and surprising moments … some that will have you believing you have it figured out. But even if you do, the long and winding road is an utter blast.

Even with that deep and talented cast, it’s Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc and Ana de Armas as Marta who stand out. They have the most screen time and neither waste a moment. Mr. Craig’s purposefully comedic southern drawl completes the film’s most memorable character, in fact, one of the year’s most memorable characters. Ms. de Armas finally finds a role to take advantage of her skill. Nurse Marta has a lie-detecting reflux gag that is not just valuable to the case, but also vital to the loudest audience reaction during the film. Mr. Craig and Ms. de Armas will also appear together in the upcoming Bond film NO TIME TO DIE.

During the reading of the will, director Johnson brings in STAR WARS stalwart Frank Oz (best known as Yoda) to play the family attorney, while another scene features one of the all-time great character actors (and Roger Ebert favorite) M. Emmet Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE). Mr. Johnson also offers a unique spin on classism and the 1%, including a running gag about Marta’s nation of origin.

Johnson’s regular team is in top form here: Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Film Editor Bob Ducsay, and composer Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin). Another deserving of mention is Costume Designer Jenny Eagan, who matches threads with personality about as effectively as we’ve seen, and Production Designer David Crank who creates the ideal mansion of secrets. This film is wickedly clever and barrels of fun. There may not have been a more purely entertaining movie this year … and it’s been a terrific year for movies. Just remember: ‘My house. My rules. My coffee.”

watch the trailer:


SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers know that the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. And now we know that the first rule of Telemarketing is STTS: Stick to the script. The similarities between the two movies may be few, but hip-hop artist (The Coup) turned first time filmmaker Boots Riley comes out swinging in this offbeat, quite clever satire on race, corporate culture, economic factions, social division, and politics. It makes for a nice companion piece to last year’s critical darling, GET OUT.

LaKeith Stanfield (GET OUT, SHORT TERM 12) stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a low key good dude living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Four months behind on rent, Cash wants to do something important with his life, he just doesn’t know how … and his current financial circumstances aren’t helping. You may call him a dreamer, but he’s not the only one (a Lennon reference seems fitting for this film).

Cash’s best buddy Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) gets him an interview at a dingy basement telemarketing firm – an interview that clues us in on the type of humor we are in for. Thanks to advice from one of the veteran telemarketers (Danny Glover), Cash utilizes his “white voice” and immediately has remarkable success … and we get some pretty funny sales call visuals to correspond to the obvious capitalism statement.

Ultimately his sales success gets him promoted to the “power caller” level and his own mentor, accessible only through the gold elevator. This leads to conflict with his friends, his girlfriend and his own moral standards. See, the basement dwellers are being led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) in an effort to unionize for a living wage and tolerable work environment. As Cash continues to pursue … well, uh … cash … his friends carry out their form of civil disobedience. This leads to police brutality, examples of corporate greed, and the downside to individual ambition.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift, the egomaniacal corporate d-bag who takes Cash under his wing – for the purpose of making more money. The sales pitch turns to “Worry Free”, a lifestyle being marketed through brain-washing advertisements for guaranteed food and shelter. One need only commit to a lifetime of corporate servitude. If that sounds like slavery, well, that’s the point Riley is making. It’s not so far off from the life many of us lead today, but of course this is presented in satirical fashion, so we are manipulated into laughing at ourselves and our society. There is even a popular reality TV show titled “I Got the S**T Kicked Out of Me”, and folks can’t get enough!

The story kind of flies off the rails in the second half with some wacko-science fiction genetic engineering. The equisapiens have to be seen, as no written description will do. Even this segment has purpose. It speaks to how individuals and corporations can seize power and head in a questionable direction – all in the name of progress, efficiency and stock price.

Stanfield excels in one of his first lead roles, and Ms. Thompson is her usual shining star. Kate Berlant (as the humorously named Diana DeBauchery) has a couple of excellent scenes, and David Cross and Patton Oswalt are terrific as the (extremely) white voices of Cash and Mr. _________ (played by Omari Hardwick).

Filmmaker Riley offers up not a call to arms, but rather a call to wake up! Many of the decisions here mirror real life. Personal success can cost us friends, and political and professional choices may challenge our inherent morals (here, bordering on Faustian). The film is both provocative and funny, though a bit messy at times. You’ll laugh while you think, or laugh after you think, or think after you laugh … somehow you’ll do both. OFFICE SPACE and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL may be the closest comparisons; just be cautious if Boots Riley ever invites you to join in some horse play.

watch the trailer: