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

Movie Review: For Better and Worse, ‘IT: Chapter Two’ Goes Full Stephen King

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CREDIT: Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros.

Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Jay Ryan, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff

Director: Andy Muschietti

Running Time: 169 Minutes

Rating: R for Bloody Clown Chomps, A Few Stabbings, Nervous Vomiting, and Creepy Nudity

Release Date: September 6, 2019

IT: Chapter Two is solidly built upon a foundation of a melancholy truth about human existence. When we’re young, we may vow to keep what’s important to us as children just as important when we became adults. But somehow, some way, we all forget some of the things we once held dear, while also remaining stuck in some of the patterns we thought we would eventually grow out of. The Losers Club of Derry, Maine represent the epitome of this mercurial attachment to the past. And so it is that 27 years after their first series of misadventures, they must return to once again defeat the supernatural evil entity that terrorizes their hometown.

This melancholy setup is an apt formula for psychological agony mixing with real in-your-face terror, but the trouble with Chapter Two is that so many of the scares are so scattered from the overarching purpose. Winged insect-bird hybrids popping out of fortune cookies and an old naked lady who turns into a floppy-breasted gargoyle are plenty creepy in and of themselves, but these moments just keep piling onto one another as a series of random horror set pieces, and the effect is eventually exhausting. Even some of the moments that actually feature Pennywise (like a gay couple being beaten up by a mob only to then fall victim to the clown or a cute little girl bonding with Pennywise over facial deformity) are effective mini-movies unto themselves, but they could have easily been cut without losing the main thread involving the Losers. Their story of coming to grips with what won’t leave them alone is effective when the full-to-bursting script actually focuses on them. Ultimately, IT: Chapter Two is decidedly overambitious and overdramatic, but it is a fascinating mess, embracing Stephen King at his weirdest and most extra.

IT: Chapter Two is Recommended If You Like: The most unfiltered Stephen King adaptations

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Hidden Memories