KNIVES OUT (2019) – Whodunit Mystery More Like Clue than Christie

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knives out

I suspect foul play!

So says Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc in his sometimes effective Southern drawl in the new whodunit mystery KNIVES OUT (2019).

Actually it’s not much of a pronouncement. Nearly everyone in this movie has a motive for murder.

KNIVES OUT is a lively comedic whodunit that is receiving high praise from critics and fans alike. Sure, it’s energetic and punchy, throwing its audience nonstop curves, keeping everyone guessing, and it pays homage to the classic murder mysteries of yesteryear. But I found its tale of murder and family intrigue contrived from the get-go, and as such, I had much less fun with this one than a lot of other folks.

Acclaimed author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found slain in the opening moments of the movie, and soon after, famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the case, which is at first ruled a suicide, but as Blanc says, he suspects foul play. And of course he should, because the night before Thrombey’s death, he celebrated his 85th birthday at a lavish party at his home with his family, who all had contentious moments with him, some even ending in shouting matches.

It seems that many in his family had reasons for doing him in. There’s his oldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), his daughter Joni (Toni Collette), his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), and his grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). There are more suspects as well, including his young personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who Blanc takes particular interest in, mostly because of her peculiar trait of vomiting whenever she tells a lie.

And that’s the plot, as Blanc questions the suspects , and the audience sees past events shown in flashback, as we all try to figure out just who murdered Harlan Thrombey. As mysteries go, it’s a good one, as there are so many possibilities, the answer is not easy to decipher. Then again, and this is the main problem I had with this film, it’s all so convoluted and contrived. It’s confusing on purpose, the goal of writer/director Rian Johnson being to construct a story that’s nearly impossible to figure out because that’s what whodunits are all about, the thinking being that it’s fun not to know who committed the crime. That’s the intention, but the result is less fun as it’s all very forced and simply not believable. At the end of the day, it’s all very cartoonish and comical. So, for me it played less like an Agatha Christie tale and more like an homage to the old CLUE (1985) movie.

The best part of KNIVES OUT is its all-star cast. Yet, while everyone in this film is very good, nobody steals the show or has moments which lift the material to higher levels.

Chris Evans gets the best lines in the movie as the unpredictable and fiery grandson Ransom Drysdale, the relative who seems to miff everyone in the family on a day-to-day basis.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon all have their moments, but none of these folks get scene-stealing bits. As much as I did not like the reimagining of HALLOWEEN (2018), Curtis’ performance in that film was more notable than what she’s given to do here. Likewise, Michael Shannon has certainly enjoyed meatier roles. For example, his performance as George Westinghouse in THE CURRENT WAR (2017), which was just released in 2019, was much more impressive. Of these folks, I probably enjoyed Don Johnson the best.

Daniel Craig is OK as Detective Benoit Blanc, but he certainly didn’t wow me. I enjoyed his previous take on a Southern character better, as the explosive Joe Bang in the comedy LOGAN LUCKY (2017).

The majority of the movie centers around the character of Marta, and Ana de Armas is more than up to the task of handling the bulk of the screen time. Interestingly enough, de Armas and Daniel Craig will be reunited in the upcoming Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE, due out in April of 2020.

Writer/director Rian Johnson, known for such films as STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII- THE LAST JEDI (2018) and LOOPER (2012), infuses KNIVES OUT with nonstop quirkiness and oomph, but the result is mixed. It’s a case I think of trying to be too clever and cute. The entire film plays as if everyone in front of the camera and behind it is winking at the audience, inviting them into their playful whodunit world of mystery and murder, and the audience for the most part knows it’s in on the joke, that this story is played for fun and laughs. The trouble is this strategy only goes so far. The general mood of the entire film is gamesome, but the specific moments where the characters and the script should be drawing the audience in really aren’t there. The contrivances rule the day. The connections to the audience do not.

I saw KNIVES OUT in a packed theater. yet the audience was largely quiet. While folks seemed amused, it certainly wasn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of movie.

KNIVES OUT was enjoyable for me in a silly way that was never anything more than fluff and contrivances, the way I would feel after playing the game of Clue, not after reading an Agatha Christie novel.

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HALLOWEEN (2018) – Jamie Lee Curtis Returns With a Vengeance, But Rest of Horror Flick Pretty Bad

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HALLOWEEN (2018)

The Jamie Lee Curtis story arc in HALLOWEEN (2018) is so good it almost saves the rest of the movie which sadly is rather— well, there’s no other way to say it, awful.

HALLOWEEN (2018) is the latest chapter in the Michael Myers saga, and before this film was released, I found myself shaking my head at the title. This is the eleventh film in the series and the third to be called HALLOWEEN. Granted, the second film entitled HALLOWEEN (2007) was Rob Zombie’s flawed reimagining of the original, but still, to call this movie HALLOWEEN seemed rather lazy.

However, when I saw the film’s trailer, which I really enjoyed, I decided to reserve judgement on the title because what I saw in the trailer looked so good.

HALLOWEEN (2018) completely ignores events in any of the sequels and re-imaginings and exists in a universe where only events from the original HALLOWEEN (1978) have occurred.

And so it has been forty years since Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) survived the brutal attack by masked killer Michael Myers on Halloween night, a night that saw three of her high school friends murdered. She has spent her remaining years dealing with the trauma, preparing for Myers’ eventual escape from the mental hospital, as she says here in the movie, so she can kill him.

And of course, Myers does escape and does return to Haddonfield, Illinois, to kill more teenagers on Halloween night, and to go after Laurie Strode once more, who after forty years of preparation, is more than up to the task of taking on the masked madman.

The best part of HALLOWEEN is the Laurie Strode story arc, and in fact it’s the only part of this sequel that’s worth watching. Her story is first-rate, as is Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance. It’s a shame the writers couldn’t come up with equally impressive stories for both Michael Myers and any of the other new characters.

But back to Laurie Strode. She’s agorophobic and lives in a secluded fortified compound. She’s estranged from her adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer), but she has a better relationship with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who’s now in high school and along with her friends are the new natural targets for Michael Myers. But even Allyson implores her grandmother to “get over it” and get on with her life.

But Laurie is wise not to, as Michael Myers returns to start another murder spree. The story told from Laurie’s perspective is completely believable, and her scenes where she takes on Myers are the best in the movie.

Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent here, and she pretty much alone saves this movie from being horrible.  She does this because the rest of the movie is pretty bad, and with Curtis’ effective performance and watchable storyline, things balance out.

So, why is the rest of the film so awful?

Let’s start with the Michael Myers character. If only the writers had spent as much care crafting Myers’ story as they did Laurie’s. His story here makes little sense. One of the biggest problems is the constant need by several characters in this movie to know more about Michael, in effect teasing the audience with their questions, and then the film gives us absolutely nothing for answers.

In John Carpenter’s original classic, we knew nothing about Michael Myers other than he was, as Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis constantly reminded us, “pure evil.” Myers was somehow for whatever reason the embodiment of evil. Not knowing more about him worked here because frankly it didn’t matter.

In the sequels, we learned all sorts of laughable reasons for his existence, from he was Laurie Strode’s brother to he was controlled by an evil cult going back to the time of the Druids. None of these plot points did the series or the character any favors. In short, there has never been a decent explanation for who Michael Myers was or what he did other than he was “death on two legs.”  And in Carpenter’s original movie this worked just fine.

Actually, the best explanation may have come in Rob Zombie’s 2007 reimagining, which revealed Michael’s traumatic childhood. What that flawed film failed to do however was connect the dots from bullied child to supernatural killer.

The problem with Myers in this new HALLOWEEN is that everyone and his grandmother keeps asking “what’s Michael Myers’ secret?” “What’s it like to be Michael Myers?” “Why won’t he talk?” And for answers, the film gives us nothing. If you’re going to give the audience nothing, don’t ask the questions!

That being said, I did enjoy how Michael Myers walked in this one, as he had a little more skip in his step—even at his advanced age!— than he did in the older films, where he would have lost a race to Kharis the Mummy!

The other huge problem with HALLOWEEN is the supporting characters are all for the most part, dreadful. It’s as if the writers spent all their time writing Laurie Strode and had nothing left in the tank for anyone else.

Judy Greer, a fine actress, who I’ve enjoyed in such films as CARRIE (2013), the recent PLANET OF THE APES movies and the ANT-MAN films, is wasted here in a whiny role as Laurie’s adult daughter Karen who criticizes her mom for obsessing over Michael Myers but herself can’t stop obsessing about her own childhood or lack thereof.

Newcomer Andi Matichak is okay as Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson, but it’s not really her story, and even though at times it seems as if she’s going to become a central character, she never really does.

I like Will Patton a lot and pretty much enjoy everything he does, and his performance here as Officer Hawkins is no exception.  Patton is very good as an officer facing his own demons, as we learn that he was one of the officers at the scene of the original 1978 Michael Myers murders.

But the writers botch this character as well, as he simply is not in this story enough to make an impact.

All of the teen characters are negligible and forgettable.

But the absolute worst character is Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) who is Myers’ current doctor and who calls himself a protegé of the deceased Dr. Loomis. Sartain’s motivations make no sense at all, and the plot twist involving his character is one of the most ridiculous plot points in the entire series. It’s awful.

The only other character who fares well is young Jibrail Nantambu who plays 10 year-old Julian who’s being babysat by Allyson’s friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner). Nantambu is only in a couple of scenes, but he steals them all, and is the only other lively part of this film other than Jamie Lee Curtis.  That being said, Virginia Gardner’s best scenes are the ones she shares with Nantambu.

Director David Gordon Green and Danny McBride wrote the deeply flawed screenplay. They get Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode right, but that’s all they get right. The other characters and the rest of the story is a mess.

The same can be said for Green’s direction.  Truth be told, I did enjoy all the scenes where he pays homage to the original HALLOWEEN. For example, the scene where Allyson sits in her high school class listening to a teacher— played by P.J. Soles, who played Laurie’s friend Lynda in the original—  drone on about fate is exactly like a similar scene in the original where Laurie sits in class listening to a similar lecture. Laurie looks out the window and see Michael Myers. Here, Allyson looks out the window and sees her grandmother.

Laurie falls from a balcony the same way Myers does at the end of the original, and likewise, just as Donald Pleasence’ Dr. Loomis looks down to see that Myers has disappeared, here, Myers looks down to see that Laurie has disappeared.

These scenes work well, However, the gas station scene which is supposed to pay homage to a similar scene from HALLOWEEN 4 – THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988) simply comes off as too derivative.

And what’s with Myer’s obsession with wearing a garage mechanic’s uniform? He wore similar garb in the original because he happened to kill a random man for his clothes, but in the sequels he seemingly has to find a way to wear the same kind of clothes all the time. Rather silly when you think about it.

The film tries to make a big deal about Myer’s mask. Everyone in the movie wants to know: What is it about this particular mask that sets off Michael Myers? Again, the film offer no answers.

Green also doesn’t give the film any decent pacing or true scares. It simply plays like your standard— and oftentimes bad— slasher horror film, complete with characters making bone-headed decisions.

John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN was ripe with suspense, including a final twenty minutes which was sweat-inducing. There’s no such suspense here.

Speaking of John Carpenter, he’s credited once more with scoring the music, and that is certainly a plus. His HALLOWEEN theme has never sounded better.

HALLOWEEN (2018) is a mixed bag of trick or treats. I loved the Laurie Strode storyline and Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance, but the rest of the film isn’t any better than HALLOWEEN’s worst sequels.

Somewhere druids are celebrating.

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