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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LOGAN LUCKY (2017) – Light and Fun but Short on Laughter

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Logan-Lucky poster

Director Steven Soderbergh has enjoyed a long and varied career.  He’s made dramas [SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)], comedies [MAGIC MIKE (2012), science fiction [SOLARIS (2002), thrillers [SIDE EFFECTS (2013), and of course the George Clooney OCEAN 11 movies.

With LOGAN LUCKY (2017), Soderbergh returns to comedy in this lighthearted tale about two brothers planning an improbable heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. And while it appears that everyone involved is having a great time, it doesn’t always translate to full-throated laughter.

Things are not going well for Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum).  He loses his construction job because of a bad leg, and his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) is about to move out-of-state with her new husband, which will make it more difficult for the out-of-work Jimmy to see his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) on a regular basis.

So, Jimmy plots with his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He chooses the race track because he had been working there on the construction crew repairing sink holes, and he had seen firsthand the vault underneath the stadium which holds the cash from the concession stands.

To pull off the heist, Jimmy and Clyde turn to the their friend Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is an expert at blowing open safes. Trouble is, Bang is in jail, and so Jimmy and Clyde concoct a plan to break Bang out of prison so he can do the job and then get him back inside again without anyone noticing. To do this, they employ the help of Bang’s two oddball brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), as well as their own sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough).

Then it’s off to the races, or so they hope.

LOGAN LUCKY reminded me a lot of a Coen brothers movie, only without the dark edges. It features quirky characters, puts them in some ridiculous situations, and lets things fly. The only difference is with a Coen brothers movie you expect something bad to happen, some bloodshed perhaps, while here, the loose ends are all tied together nicely, perhaps a bit too nicely.

Incredibly, the story manages to remain grounded in reality. In spite of how wildly inane the plot becomes, it all remains believable, and the characters in spite of their eccentricities remain real. It’s a smart script by Rebecca Blunt.

That being said, I wouldn’t have minded more zaniness, as the film isn’t as funny as it should be.  More laughs, and sharper ones, would have definitely made things better.

The story jumps back and forth between Jimmy’s West Virginia home and the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and the whole film is steeped in southern country atmosphere, helped along by Jimmy’s favorite song, John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Director Soderbergh also gets the most out of his strong cast in LOGAN LUCKY.

I’m not a Channing Tatum fan, but he’s excellent here as Jimmy Logan.  He’s pretty much the straight man in the story, and while he’s surrounded by oddball characters and takes part in a ridiculous scheme, his character remains pretty real.  This might be my favorite Channing Tatum movie performance, mostly because it reminds me of nothing he has done before.

Likewise, Adam Driver excels as Jimmy’s brother Clyde.  Seriously, all Driver has to do in this movie is stand there and he gets laughs.  It’s a much more satisfying performance than his troubled Kylo Ren in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  I enjoyed Driver much more here.

And then there’s Daniel Craig as safe cracker Joe Bang, looking as far removed from James Bond here as ever, with his southern accent and quirky personality.  It’s probably the most fun performance by Craig- who always looks so serious- to date.  The scenes where Tatum, Driver, and Craig appear together are very funny, and the film soars during these moments, like the sequence where Joe Bang explains to Jimmy and Clyde the chemical formula for his bomb, writing the formula on the wall of the motor speedway tunnel and speaking to them as if he’s a classroom chemistry teacher.  But sadly there aren’t as many scenes with all three actors together as you might expect.

I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Riley Keough.  I first noticed her in the excellent horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).  She’s superb again here as Jimmy’s and Clyde’s sister Mellie.  She’s wonderfully real, and terribly sexy at the same time.

Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are also very good in smaller roles as Joe’s brothers Fish and Sam. Katie Holmes’ role as Jimmy’s ex-wife Bobbie Jo is pretty standard.

Two other stars appear in smaller roles.  Seth MacFarlane is unrecognizable with his long hair, mustache, and a beard in a thankless role as a NASCAR promoter and TV personality Max Chilblain. And Hilary Swank shows up late in the game as FBI Agent Sarah Grayson who investigates the heist.

When Swank’s FBI agent shows up to investigate the robbery, it’s at a point in the film where it naturally seems to be winding down, but it doesn’t, and it continues to go on for some time, a bit too long. The final reel of the film seems tacked on and unnecessary.

Other than this, LOGAN LUCKY is a well-made, well-directed, well-acted, and smartly written comedy that is light and enjoyable. The only thing missing, and it’s a big thing, is the laughter.  While I chuckled here and there, the comedy simply isn’t as sharp as it needs to be.

Granted, the film has its moments, but for a movie that feels like a screwball comedy, the limited laughter came as a surprise.  That being said, LOGAN LUCKY has an intelligent script that keeps things believable throughout, and with a solid cast delivering exceptional performances, it’s a hard movie to dislike.

I just wished I had laughed more.

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