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.”

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CALVARY (2014)

August 3, 2014

calvary Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendon Gleeson re-team (The Guard, 2011) in what can be viewed as one giant leap for both filmmaker and actor. Mr. McDonagh is immensely talented and seems to be a natural at keeping his viewers unsure of what’s coming, and Mr. Gleeson gives his best yet performance of a quite impressive career.

Set and filmed in a western Irish coastal town, the film has a most unusual first scene, including an acknowledgment of such as the priest (Gleeson) says “Certainly a startling opening line“. This occurs in the confessional, with an extreme close-up, as the unseen (by us) parishioner then says “I’m going to kill you Father“. With Sunday week as the promised deadline, the movie follows the Priest with a placard for each day, as he makes his way through consulting the maze of local town characters. He also receives a visit from his daughter (Kelly Reilly), fresh off a suicide attempt (he was married prior to joining the priesthood).

The film bounces from very dark humor to extreme philosophical and theological discussions (faith and mortality) between the town folks and the priest. We quickly learn what a good man (with an imperfect past) he is, and struggle to understand why the locals flash such vitriol his way. The Catholic Church, and all that implies these days, certainly plays a key role, but more than that, this is about the make-up and character of people.

An impressive and talented supporing cast includes Aidan Gillen as the atheist doctor with a dark side, Chris O’Dowd as the local butcher, Orla O’Rourke as his unfaitful wife about town, Isaach DeBankola as one of her chums, Dylan Moran as the conflicted local rich boy, Killian Scott as the frustrated virginal local, Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s son) as an incarcerated serial killer, and the always great M Emmet Walsh – back on screen as the local old timer who spins yarns and enjoys attention.

This is not the place to go into detail about the story, as the film is best unwrapped and interpreted by each viewer. Rather than a whodunnit, it has a rare who-is-going-to-do-it element that hovers over each scene. What can be said is that this is exceptional filmmaking: it’s well directed, beautifully photographed (landscapes and aerials), superbly acted, has a terrific script (incredible dialogue), and encourages much discussion.

watch the trailer: