Movie Review ~ Knives Out


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, K Callan, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Raúl Castillo

Director: Rian Johnson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Readers, there’s a mystery to solve and I need your help finding the solution.  Who killed the whodunit?  The suspects are as follows.  Studio execs that didn’t see the value in continuing to produce mid-range budgeted films that would often make their money back but didn’t have franchise possibilities.  Screenwriters that grew lazy with their material and started to rehash well-worn plots that didn’t keep viewers guessing as much as it did counting down the minutes until the inevitable twist was introduced.  Audiences that stayed away, preferring their trips to the theater be reserved for spectacles of populist entertainment.  The death was slow but not unexpected, with the last gasp occurring in the dead of a summer’s night in the mid 2000s.

A life-long fan of mysteries, I’ve been starving for an old-fashioned whodunit, the kind of jigsaw puzzle of a movie that wasn’t just about unmasking a teen slasher but doing some detective work to get answers.  It’s probably why I welcomed 2018’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express with an extra warm hug (more than most critics) and why I was eagerly anticipating the release of writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.  Here was the pre-Thanksgiving feast I’d been waiting for and if the early previews delivered on its promise, there was a distinct possibility it could lead to more of its kind in the future.  Boasting a star-studded cast, cheeky humor, and a solid but not entirely complex enigma at its core, Knives Out is decidedly entertaining but curiously lacking in connection.

You’re in a spoiler-free zone so read on with confidence knowing nothing not already presented in the trailers will be discussed. 

Famed mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World) has been found dead the morning after his birthday party where his entire family was in attendance.  Originally ruling the death a suicide, the police have gathered the family for another round of questioning when an anonymous tip attracts the attention of famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, Skyfall).  One by one, every family member recounts their memory of the last night they saw Harlan alive, each producing a slightly different take on the evening.  Only Harlan’s young attendant/nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) seems to be able to speak the truth, but then again she has a physical aversion to lying that causes her to…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

The first forty five minutes of Knives Out is occupied with Blanc and Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, The Girl in the Spider’s Web) getting to know the family better, giving us a chance to see their internal dynamics as well.  Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween) is a self-made businesswoman married to loafer Richard (Don Johnson, Paradise) and their charming but churlish son Ransom (Chris Evans, Avengers: Endgame) is the clear black sheep of the family.  Running his father’s publishing house is Walt (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and he grows frustrated with his dad’s refusal to take advantage of the profitable endeavors he has been proposing.  Married to a third sibling that passed away, Joni (Toni Collette, Krampus) and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford, Love, Simon) are kept close even if behind closed doors they aren’t truly considered family.  Then there is Harlan’s mother (K. Callan, American Gigolo), a near silent crone that’s always watching and definitely always listening.

That’s a lot of people to juggle, and I haven’t even discussed a few extra bodies, but by some miracle Johnson’s script manages to make time for all of them.  Still, it never quite feels like enough.  Viewers will be surprised how little certain stars are participatory as the movie unfolds.  Sure, they have an impact on the plot and get moments to shine but with an ensemble this large it’s natural to miss out on featuring everyone all the time.  Thankfully, Johnson (Looper) learned a thing or two from his time on Star Wars: The Last Jedi and knows how to pepper the movie with spikes of energy if the pacing is starting to drop off.  Each time the plot seemed to be hitting a bit of a wall, it pivoted in some tiny way to keep you off kilter.  I would have liked there to a bit more, ultimately, to this family.  The way it’s scripted, they are slightly walking jokes waiting for a set-up and punchline.

As for the mystery of what happened to Harlan Thrombey, well I wouldn’t dream of giving that away.  What I will say is that I appreciated Johnson didn’t cheat when all was revealed.  Having seen enough of these movies over the years I can easily start to piece together the clues and so when I saw them pop up I started to place the important pieces to one side.  When it was time to step back and see the big picture, it was nice to see it all fit together…and not precisely in the way I thought it was going to.  The performances and cinematography are key to pulling this kind of sleight-of-hand off more than anything and Johnson’s cast of experienced professionals all are more than up to the challenge.

The biggest take away I have for you is this: Knives Out is a lot of fun.  In a movie-going era where so many films that get released are dependent on existing intellectual property, it’s a welcome relief that a studio like Lionsgate went the extra mile with this and supported Johnson in his endeavor to try something old but in a modern way.  It’s a little light, if I’m being honest, and I’m not sure what a second viewing will be like.  I know I do want to see it again and that’s saying something.  It’s supposed to snow this Thanksgiving weekend where I am in the Midwest and I can’t think of a better way to spend a gloomy snow day than in a warm theater watching a movie like this play out — the community experience for this one should be fun.

Movie Review ~ IT: Chapter Two


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Will Beinbrink, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Two years after IT: Chapter One took the late summer/early box office by screaming storm, we find ourselves in a similar situation upon the arrival of its sequel.  Like its predecessor, IT: Chapter Two is being released at the very tail end of a mostly bummer summer of sputtering sequels and non-starter indies.  At this point in the year, the hunger for something high quality that isn’t seeking Oscar gold (or is it?) but just wants to entertain is, I must admit, quite appealing.  Re-watching Chapter One in anticipation of Chapter Two, I was struck by how well that earlier film scooped up the audience into its spell and had high hopes the second chapter would continue with that same magic.

In my review of the first film I wondered why the studio didn’t have a little more faith in the property and shoot the entire novel back-to-back instead of disrupting its non-linear plot in favor of more straight-forward storytelling. Instead, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, still wary after a troubled start to the project when the original writer/director left, decided to test the waters by filming only the first of a planned two-part movie.  The film was a gigantic hit (rightfully so), made a few stars out of the kids, and almost immediately had fans compiling their dream cast for the follow-up that quickly got the greenlight.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club bested Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) and most have moved away from the tiny town of Derry, Maine.  Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, The Three Stooges) is the only one that has stuck around, living above the library and keeping watch for any strange occurrences that might be tied to the evil he faced with his friends when they were tweens.  Receiving a fairly targeted message at the scene of a horrific crime that confirms his worst suspicions, Mike tracks down his long-lost pals who have all strangely forgotten the summer of the clown and they oath they made to return.

Overcoming his stutter and becoming a successful novelist and screenwriter, Bill (James McAvoy, Split) is more than happy to vacate the set of his latest movie where he’s having trouble getting the ending right.  Beverly (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) escapes her violent husband/business partner in order to keep her promise, while foul-mouthed stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins) leaves his tour and heads for Maine.  Eddie (James Ransone, Sinister) and Ben (Jay Ryan) have no problems getting out of their stuffy corporate jobs and away from the drone of their daily lives.  Only Stanley (Andy Bean, Allegiant) finds it harder to return for reasons I won’t spoil here.

When the gang has gathered back in their hometown and Mike levels with them about the evil that has reemerged, the memories come flooding back and it’s here the movie starts to fray. Up until that point, writer Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home) and returning director Andy Muschietti (Mama) have been pulling the rope tighter and tauter around the group, giving them all warning signs that danger awaits them all.  Once they all arrive, however, there’s a fracturing isolation that occurs which gives each person an individual mini sub-storyline to follow and the movie curiously goes slack.  Seems that Mike has found out a way to destroy the entity that has been feeding off of Derry residents for hundreds of years and he needs his friends to split up and gather a personal “artifact” from that summer that was important to them.

This gives each actor their own stretch of time to be the star of the film and not everyone uses their time wisely. Surprisingly, it’s the biggest stars that fare the worst with McAvoy whipping himself into an absolute frenzy at inopportune times, coming off as bug-eyed and hysterical instead of terrified.  Chastain is right behind him feasting on the scenery and she and Hader fight over which high emotional moment to gnaw on next.  (There is a serious campaign to get Hader an Oscar nomination for his work here and, while I’m a fan, that’s totally bonkers.  This isn’t even an Oscar-adjacent performance.) All three become, frankly, grating as the movie extends which makes the restrained and nuanced work Ransone, Ryan, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mustafa, seem even more welcome.  These character “adventures” feel like the chapters they are in the book, personal moments that have slight ties to the greater action but are largely drop-in and drop-out scenes.  The same scenario is repeated later in the movie when the adults get thrown into their own personal horrors.  What started in 2017 as a scary riff on Stand by Me turns into a tricky re-working of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

What’s really missed are the child actors from Chapter One and, though they have been brought back for this second installment they aren’t…quite the same.  Over the past two years the kids have done what kids do at that age: they grow.  Via digital scrubbing and voice modulating, the performances have been youth-ized and the results are often creepier than Pennywise.  You know the voice matches the actor but the face doesn’t look right so it’s all strangely out of whack.  Only Sophia Lillis seems to have escaped the airbrush and thus her performance feels the most grounded and real.  When the action switches back to the adults, you can see the work the older actors have done to match their younger counterparts and, for what it’s worth, the casting is spot-on.  I just kept wondering what would have happened if they waited 27 years to let these younger actors grow into their older selves.

As is the case with most sequels to horror films, the scares have to be bigger and more frequent and IT: Chapter Two definitely falls in line with expectations  The trouble with that is there is no build up to a scare almost anywhere in the movie.  Sure, there is some disturbing imagery and a few jolts but none come close to the satisfying and expertly orchestrated thrills elicited from Chapter One.  It’s like in Jaws.  Once you’ve seen the shark, you’ve seen the shark and it’s all about the attack from then on.  Now that we are familiar with Pennywise and have seen so much of him, there’s less menace to be had, even though he does bare that hideous maw with rows upon rows of razor teeth multiple times in the film.

There’s a fairly large amount of iffy CGI on display, as well. Though the protracted finale of the film features the most well-rounded effects of all, there are numerous nightmare creatures conjured up by Dauberman and Muschietti that are simply goofy to look at.  An abundance of grotesque creepies emerge from the darkness throughout the movie and few have the same impact of the simple image of Pennywise staring out of the dark at an unsuspecting child.  An effective (if extremely hard to stomach) opening sequence at a country fair and a later scene underneath the town bleachers are good reminders of how Muschietti can extend tension to its most enjoyable breaking point.

At 169 minutes, the movie either needed to be 40 minutes shorter or 60 minutes longer. Were it shorter, Muschietti could have trimmed up some redundant character bits in the third act that feel like extra padding.  Had it been longer, we could have spent some more time with the Losers Club and their lives outside of Derry.  There’s too little of their current lives shown to give us a proper introduction so we have to almost base our knowledge soley on what we remember from the original film.  What I do appreciate is Muschietti’s attention to small details from the book and within his vision of the film.  I’ll  have to give the movie a second watch, but there’s usually something not quite right going on in the background of scenes that most viewers won’t catch on the first viewing.  It’s also a nice touch to have Eddie’s nagging wife played by the same actress who was his mother in Chapter One.  There are also two very funny cameos, one in particular that had our audience cheering.

There’s rumors of a supercut that might happen that would combine both movies into one and I’d be fascinated to see how that would come together. I’d definitely recommend this movie, sequel flaws and long running time aside, because of the way it nicely concludes what was started back in 2017.  If only everything was done at the same time and the filmmakers didn’t have that extra year to get too zealous with their plans for IT: Chapter Two.