Movie Reviews: With ‘Knives Out,’ Rian Johnson Can Add the Whodunit to His Collection of Filmmaking Merit Badges

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CREDIT: Claire Folger © 2018 MRC II Distribution

Starring: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, Noah Segan, Edi Patterson, Riki Lindhome, K Callan, Frank Oz, Raúl Castillo, M. Emmet Walsh

Director: Rian Johnson

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Explosions, Possible Poisonings, and (Attempted?) Stabbings

Release Date: November 27, 2019

If you’d like to dust off a musty old genre and guide it to unexpected new depths, then you might just want to call Rian Johnson. He’s already shown what new joys await in a neo-noir mystery, a time-travelling actioner, and the biggest franchise of all time, and now with Knives Out, he moves on to the whodunit, and the answer to that question is, “By golly, Rian Johnson has done it once again!”

Since every whodunit needs a murder victim and a set of suspects, Knives Out has a bounty of them. The recently dead man is super-wealthy mystery novelist (wink, wink?) Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), and the folks who might be responsible or maybe know something consist of his mother Wanetta (K Collins), his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Hugh Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), and his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). While his employees generally get along with him, his family members all have reason to resent him (and they also keep mixing up which South or Central American country Marta is from). Naturally enough, there are also a couple of police detectives on hand (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and an idiosyncratic private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired under mysterious circumstances.

CREDIT: Claire Folger

The trick that Knives Out pulls is that within twenty minutes, it reveals everything (or nearly everything) that happened in thorough detail. Harlan’s death is initially ruled a suicide, and we are shown pretty much unmistakably that he sliced his own throat, and everyone’s presence at that moment is accounted for. Done deal, then? Well, there’s still nearly two more hours of running time left. The script keeps itself honest thanks to one particularly telling character quirk: Marta’s “regurgitative reaction to mistruthing.” That is to say, whenever she lies, or merely even considers lying, she spews chunks. Thus, there is no other option than for the truth to similarly spill out, and there is no room for contrivances to keep the audience in the dark. But that having been said, information can be obscured and unknown unknowns can take some time to make themselves known. Ergo, Rian Johnson gives us the simultaneous joy of being let in on a little secret while also playing the guessing game.

CREDIT: Claire Folger

In addition to Knives Out‘s masterful mystery machinations, it additionally offers plenty of keen observations of human nature. There is the ever-timely message of the tension that emerges when the haves and have-nots bump against each other, as well as the chaos that can reign when fortunes swing wildly. Furthermore, there is an astute understanding of the difference between truth and honesty, and how the latter can help you survive when the former is hidden. All of this is to say, motivation matters a great deal in cinema, and in life.

Knives Out is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Logan Lucky

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Colorful Sweaters

This Is a Movie Review: ‘All the Money in the World’ Brings the Life-or-Death Thrills, But Could Go Deeper in the Psychology of Vast Wealth

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CREDIT: Sony/Columbia TriStar

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for Kidnapping-Related Dismemberment and the Vices of the Rich and Organized Criminals

Release Date: December 25, 2017

First off, for those of you wondering: yes, director Ridley Scott has seamlessly replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the role of J. Paul Getty. No distracting editing or effects tricks appear to have been necessary, and anyone unfamiliar with the backstory should not have any reason to suspect an unusual production.

As All the Money in the World states explicitly, the Getty family’s massive fortune makes them practically an alien species living among human beings. Is it J. Paul Getty’s billions that make him see the world differently, or has he always been that way? Certainly his instinct for negotiating every possible deal is unprecedented, but his particularly uncompromising worldview goes beyond that. How else to explain a man who takes extreme measures not to ensure that his grandson is freed from kidnappers, but rather to ensure that he gets the best possible deal out of the exchange?

Ridley Scott’s knack for ruthless efficiency makes it difficult to really plumb those psychological depths. (It also means that there are moments when characters are staged partially in shadow and I am not sure if it is an artistic decision or just poor lighting.) It is impossible to avoid them entirely, because of Getty’s singularity and Plummer’s inherent understanding of the role. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions, but we are nudged towards just accepting that this man is totally inscrutable.

While this efficiency may skimp on the thematic depth, it at least ensures the satisfaction of a nail-biting thrill ride. The kidnapping victim, John Paul Petty III, who goes by Paul, (Charlie Plummer, unrelated to Christopher) is adrift by his familial station, but he has still enough of a survival instinct to give his scenes plenty of verve. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams, with a distractingly self-aware but perhaps historically accurate Mid-Atlantic accent) is understandably constantly on the verge of an emotional breakdown, but she remains steely, surprising herself perhaps most of all. And Mark Wahlberg is unusually upright and decent as the former CIA operative assisting J. Paul and Gail. In the moment of watching, the rescue mission grips you, but in the long run, the mark of J. Paul Getty leaves you existentially disoriented.

All the Money in the World is Recommended If You Like: Films About Real Life Rescue Missions and the Most Notorious Criminal Enterprises, Attempting to Understand the Wealthiest People on the Planet

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Negotiations

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Fails Utterly at Its Supposed Purpose, But is Somewhat Entertaining in Other Ways

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CREDIT: Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Anna Murphy

Director: Bharat Nalluri

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG for Intense Childhood Poverty Memories

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (Limited)

Did you know that Charles Dickens is the man to thank for Christmas in its current form? I am sure that many of you are aware how his novel A Christmas Carol has had an outsize impact on yuletide-celebrating cultures, but apparently his influence goes so much further. It turns out that his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge singlehandedly changed December 25 from a recognized, but inconsequential blip on the calendar into the biggest day of the year. Or so The Man Who Invented Christmas would have us believe…

Here’s the thing, though: beside its title and epilogue, The Man Who Invented Christmas does essentially nothing to support its supposed thesis. When reviewing cinema, I ask, “What is this movie trying to be, and is it successful?” This is a distinct question from “What is the director (or any of the other filmmakers) trying to do?” because sometimes a great film can be made accidentally. (Cult favorite The Room is the perfect such example.) But when a movie states its purpose so directly and then completely fails to even attempt to live up to that purpose, it is hard not to get frustrated.

All that being said, it is not as if The Man Who Invented Christmas is an hour and a half of nothing happening. In fact, much of it is actually a fairly fascinating examination of the creative process. Dickens (a fleet-witted, buzzy Dan Stevens) promises his publishers that he can complete his new Christmas-themed book in a grueling six weeks in time for a holiday release. As he writes, he is visited by what appear to be actual physical manifestations of the characters he is currently conjuring up: the Cratchits, Jacob Marley, and of course, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, quite naturally slotting into all that humbug).

The parts of this film that are essentially a two-hander between Stevens and Plummer (with a few supporting Carol-ers) work quite well, and I think I would have really liked it if that had been the whole movie. But there’s also a fair amount of business to do with Dickens’ tumultuous personal life, much of it regarding his destitute father John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Charles alternately regards as a leech and a kindly old man. There is enough complicated psychology here to render a more straightforward biopic that could be a tough but rewarding watch. But as these moments are mostly there just to provide context, they do not go much deeper than surface level.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is Recommended If You Like: A Christmas Carol completism, Anything with Dan Stevens and/or Christopher Plummer

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Deadlines