Movie Review ~ Knives Out

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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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Knives Out



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

Release Date: November 27, 2019

Thoughts: This November, writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is hopefully going to give this Agatha Christie murder-mystery loving guy something to be thankful for when Lionsgate releases the star-studded whodunit, Knives Out.  Packed to the brim with A-listers and a few solid B-list mainstays, this looks like a cheeky and fun black comedy with a bit of death thrown into the mix.  With favorites like Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding), Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame), Daniel Craig (Skyfall), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special) among the suspects and sleuths, all bets are off on what Johnson has in store for us but I expect some twists to be turned and rugs to be pulled as we get to the final reveal.  Fingers crossed this is as entertaining as it looks.  Though I’m sure this must contain some sort of spoilers – the first look at Knives Out is fairly sparse and feels like it’s holding back big reveals for the finished product.

31 Days to Scare ~ Halloween (2018)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Haluk Bilginer, Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney, Virginia Gardner, Miles Robbins, Toby Huss, Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall, Dylan Arnold, Drew Scheid

Director: David Gordon Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Not only has masked killer Michael Myers lasted longer than a curious cat living next to a busy train track but he’s been revived just as often. Over the past 40 years the Halloween hellraiser from Haddonfield has been a brother to our heroine (Halloween II), an unwelcome uncle (Halloween 4 and Halloween 5), been used as a deadly tool by a cult (Halloween 6), and even missed out completely on one movie (Halloween III). He’s been resurrected (Halloween 8) and rebooted (Rob Zombie’s bizarre remakes) but the one thing that hasn’t truly happened to the Halloween franchise is the chance to revisit with any kind of integrity the characters that made such an impact on audiences four decades ago.

It’s not often a character gets to come back in two different timelines but Jamie Lee Curtis (Prom Night) has the unique distinction of rewriting her own character’s history for a second time. Though Curtis famously returned to the franchise in Halloween: Twenty Years Later (H20 for short…and giggles) the overall impact wasn’t what she hoped and the cleverness fully depleted in the follow-up to that movie. Now, at the urging of none other than Jake Gyllenhaal, Curtis has teamed up with director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and comedian Danny McBride (This Is the End) for a new film which ignores every sequel to John Carpenter’s landmark 1978 film and serves as a fine horror film as well as a glimpse into the lasting effects of trauma.  With Carpenter’s blessing and also his updated score, the three unlikely collaborators set out to continue Laurie’s story with a few unexpected turns along the way.

As the 40th anniversary of The Babysitter Murders in Haddonfield draws near, there is renewed interest in the silent killer Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, the girl that got away. A pair of podcasters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) have come to Smith’s Grove Hospital to try to get Michael Myers to speak to them. His watchful doctor (Haluk Bilginer, Rosewater) has taken over for the late Dr. Loomis as Michael’s caretaker and doesn’t bat an eye when one of the interviewers hauls out that famous white mask and tries to use it to elict a reaction out of the aged murderer.  How the UK podcaster managed to get the mask out of the courthouse (sure, he says it was given to him but still) and not even in a plastic bag to preserve it is a detail no one seems to bat an eye at. Failing to get anything out of him, the two track down Strode (Curtis) in her protected compound on the outskirts of town.

Living in the woods like a survivalist with no apparent war to fight, Strode is damaged goods after two failed marriages and having her daughter taken away at a young age. Living with the trauma of what she endured has left her broken and bruised, unable to move on from a singular event in her life that still feels unresolved. Estranged from her daughter (Judy Greer, Jurassic World) but attempting to form a bond with her granddaughter (Andi Matichak), Strode is doing the best she can while self-medicating with booze and staying alert in case Myers breaks out and returns to finish the job. Of course, that’s what happens when the bus transporting Myers to a maximum security prison crashes and he escapes. Making a beeline to his hometown and leaving numerous bodies in his wake, Myers slices and dices his way through the town on October 31 while tracking down his main target. Unlucky for him, then, that Laurie has been preparing for this moment for 40 years and is not only ready for his return but willing to stick her neck out to be the one to take him down.

It isn’t a perfect film, there’s far too many extraneous characters that are introduced only to die without much care and there are narrative gaps and implausible leaps that feel outside of the grounded reality the filmmakers are going for. There’s one rather huge twist about ¾ of the way through that is so misguided I thought it was going to derail the entire film – thankfully (mercifully) the film gets back on track fairly quickly. It’s never explained how Myers was captured after the first film or why Strode didn’t just move overseas if she was that traumatized. Also…I still can’t get fathom why this was called simply Halloween and not given its own distinctive title. While it is a direct continuation to the original, it’s not a remake and should have had something to set it apart.  Also, I hate to be the one to break it to you but if you’ve seen the trailers for the film much of the surprises and scares have been spoiled for you.  It’s disappointing to see just how much of the movie has been shown already, way too many of the moments that could have held high suspense have been cheapened or outright ruined by advertisements that held nothing back.

Quibbles aside, Green and McBride (with fellow screenwriter Jeff Fradley) have crafted a supremely satisfying film, pleasing the fans of the original while injecting enough humor, scares, and gore for audiences of today who aren’t content with the slow burn terror Carpenter created in his original masterpiece. Nothing could ever match that and their Halloween doesn’t truly try to outdo its big brother, it just wants to get on the same playing field and it gets the job done. Curtis is wonderful in the role, unlike the character she returned to in H20, I very much believed this Laurie Strode is the same one we first met 40 years ago and she seems to be having a ball giving her most famous role a proper ending. I liked that the majority of the movie focused on the relationship between three generations of Strode women — Greer fits in nicely as Strode’s daughter harboring resentment at the seeming loss of her childhood and I quite liked Matichak who felt like a Laurie for a new generation. There’s already sequel talk and as much as I’d love to see what Green and McBride would cook up next (they originally wanted to film this movie and its sequel back to back) I almost hope they leave well enough alone and let these characters rest in peace.

The Silver Bullet ~ Halloween (2018)

Synopsis: Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Release Date: October 19, 2018

Thoughts: Michael Myers has sure been around the block. After the tremendous success of the 1978 original Halloween there were seven sequels of varying quality (#2, #4, and #7 are tops in my book) and then the icky remake and even ickier sequel from shock rocker Rob Zombie.  There were rumors another movie was going to materialize but no one expected the franchise to do an about face and effectively wipe the slate clean – which is exactly what’s happening with 2018’s all new Halloween. Treating the sequels as if they never happened, director David Gordon Green (Our Brand is Crisis) directs a script he co-wrote with Danny McBride (This is the End) starring Jamie Lee Curtis (Terror Train) and has the blessing of original director John Carpenter.  This first look is pretty creepy…but perhaps shows a tad too much for my taste – I’d have preferred it to show less so we expect more.  Knowing the fates of several characters already lessens some of the impact – but I’m counting on all involved to have a few tricks ‘n treats up their sleeves.

31 Days to Scare ~ Prom Night (1980)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A masked killer stalks four teenagers, responsible for the accidental death of a little girl six years earlier, at their high school’s senior prom.

Stars: Leslie Nielsen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Casey Stevens, Eddie Benton, Michael Tough, Jeff Wincott, Mary Beth Rubens, Joy Thompson

Director: Paul Lynch

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Original Release Date: July 18, 1980

Review: Though the origins of the so-called slasher film dated all the way back to the early days of cinema and popped up in films like Psycho, it truly hit its peak in the early 1980s.  Given a jump start by John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween before being fully revived in early 1980 by Friday the 13th, the slice and dice films took off like a locomotive that same year which saw the release of no less than 19 stalk and kill films that set the box office aflame.

Nowadays many of these films are looked back on with wrinkled noses and heavy eye rolls thanks to their low-budget nature and grade school acting but there are a few that have stood the test of time and Prom Night is one of the better efforts of those early years of horror.  It doesn’t deserve to be front and center on the same shelf with the true classics but it earns a spot just left of the middle considering how derivative it could have been.

Opening with a childhood game that turns unexpectedly deadly, the bulk of the action in Prom Night takes place in the “present” (1980 and don’t you forget it!) where a ski-masked killer targets the half dozen teens that were involved as they disco the night away at their senior prom.  The red herrings are piled on with gusto but watching it again recently I was struck by how uncomplicated screenwriter William Gray and director Paul Lynch made the whole affair.  Most bait-and-switch plots of the era hammer home that they’re trying to distract you from the real killer but the set-up of Prom Night allows the central red herring to play out with ease, until the quickie ending undoes all of the layers of misdirection from the previous 90 minutes.

Prom Night was the second of three horror films Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween II, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) starred in in 1980.  Playing a minor role in John Carpenter’s The Fog allowed Curtis some time to breathe before the one two punch of Prom Night and Terror Train, fully cementing her Scream Queen status.  Though she looks every bit the 22 years she was when the movie was released, there’s an ease and relatability to Curtis that helps you buy she’s a barely 18 year old senior.  Curtis doesn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting here because she spends the greater part of the final act of the film dancing away at the festivities…her now-legendary disco sequence is still a highlight of the viewing experience.

The rest of the cast is made up of forgotten faces (and Leslie Nielsen as Curtis’ father that disappears halfway through the film and is never mentioned again) all served up to the killer’s knife in marginally creative ways.  There’s an especially good chase sequence that extends longer than normal, showing that there was more interest in building up tension than merely skipping to another act of bloodletting.  Everyone in the film is much too old for their characters but there’s such a quaint charm to the façade that you wind up going along with it all.

Though it had several sequels (like Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) and was remade in 2008 as a PG-13 terribly toothless mess, the only thing that tied these films together was the name of the high school so it’s best to ignore everything that came before it and give the original a try.  It’s been remastered beautifully for a BluRay release and it’s worth watching as an example of the early days of the soon to be mass produced slasher film.

 

For those of you too chicken to watch the film, you still deserve to watch Jamie Lee Curtis’ excellent disco moves in a now classic scene.