film

Review: Knives Out

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, (Hey stop! Quit shouting and throwing things!) “Knives Out” is a murder mystery throwback to the Agatha Christie style of such stories. This is a film that is wholeheartedly enamored with the classic ‘Whodunnit?‘ It’s also very aware of it’s place and relation to the genre classics, though while the film revels in the usual machinations of a murder mystery- it doesn’t hold itself to those rules and is keen to take a different tact whenever given the opportunity. As with most stories within the genre, it begins with a dead body. Who just so happens to be Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) the incredibly successful mystery author who had just turned 85 the night of his death. Thus, the game is afoot. With the whole Thrombey family still in town due to the birthday celebrations, a mysteriously hired gentleman Detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) digging around, and the quiet yet warm home nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) there to help pick up the pieces, there’s an awful lot of suspects and heck of a lotta suspicion in the air.

The Thrombey clan isn’t exactly one forged in humility or solidarity. First there’s Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), eldest son of the author who runs the publishing company that sells Harlan’s books. He’s been trying to convince his father to sell the books rights for film and television adaptions for years, and that night Harlan effectively fired his son from the publishing company. Next is Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), former wife of one of Harlan’s sons who had passed on years ago and in that time she’s become a member of the Woo-Woo society, and instagram influencer of sorts. She’d been getting allowances from Harlan for her daughter Meg’s university (and also skimming a bit off the top to boot), though Harlan made it clear that he intended to cut her off that same day as well. Then there’s Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), the playboy and black-sheep of the family. He’d gotten into the biggest argument with Harlan that day out of anyone and stormed off early in the night when he learned that he was getting cut from the will. There’s a lot of combative energy and spiteful angst going to and from all of the Thrombeys as each and every one are interviewed by the inimitable gentleman sleuth himself, LeBlanc. There’s something incredibly exciting about an infamous Detective with a southern drawl questioning a bunch of rich entitled ne’er do wells in a massive country mansion that feels ripped from the Clue film. So much so that several characters feel the need to point these things out, and that’s part of the fun of this film- Rian Johnson’s contagious entusiasm practically bleeds off the screen.

There’s a whole bunch of twists and turns that the film’s mystery takes, and just when you think you’ve got it pinned down there will be another flashback from a different perspective or a return to certain events but with new information. “Knives Out” is an excellent film in a genre that has all but evaporated from cinema today, and we’re lucky to have such an entertaining resurgence with this film. The writing is playful and inventive and the characters are all a treat, but the cast of high caliber actors within this film is the reason to see this one. If you’re into a solid throwback to the classic ‘Whodunnit?‘ structure of a murder mystery- give this one a shot!

Final Score: 1 Chris Evans in a White-Knit Sweater

film

Review Catch-Up: IT Chapter 2 (2019)

*Caution! There will be some spoilers within this review*

Written by Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti, “IT Chapter 2” is the sequel to the 2017 horror hit “IT”. In the second half of this most recent adaption of Stephen King’s monolith of a book, The Losers club returns to Derry twenty-seven years after their initial bout with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) the dancing clown. After a particularly gruesome murder with a tinge of the supernatural, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) starts calling up his old friends to summon them home to finish the deed and kill the clown for good. The Losers are older now, and most of them ended up fairly successful in their careers. Bill (James McAvoy) is a horror author helping to adapt one of his books into a film when he gets the call to return to Derry. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) may have an abusive husband, but she also runs a successful fashion line. Richie (Bill Hader) wanders out a of a backstage to lose his lunch after hearing from Mike, after which he heads onstage to profusely ‘bomb‘ his comedy set. Meanwhile, Ben’s (Jay Ryan) in the middle of a meeting on a new building’s blueprints, he’s the head architect of the project. Eddie (James Ransone), who’s now, aptly, a risk assessment manager, gets into a car crash after hearing Mike’s message. The only loser to not return to Derry, is also the one who’s death is most impactful in the pages of the book version of “IT”, Stanley (Andy Bean). Too horrified by his past encounter with Pennywise, Stanley kills himself in the tub, sprawling the word “IT” in his blood on the tiled walls. In the book, the two halves of the story are meshed together in a circular tale that, wisely, slowly ramps up the tension and horror by hiding it’s secrets in the momentum of both story’s third acts which both happen alongside each other. This allows the adults’ memory loss to feel “remembered” in real time. This also allows Stanley’s death to conjure a more abject fear of IT because we don’t fully know why he was so traumatized to begin with. Imagination breeds a fear of the unknown, and King knew that.

So, the structure of the film is such that the Losers all congregate at a Chinese restaurant as they begin to remember their childhood and why it was so important to come back, to keep their pact intact. In the book, this search for meaning and realization of purpose is a huge portion of the adults’ stories and when it’s meshed in-between the escalating tension of Pennywise’s attacks on them both in the present and the past, you get a more nuanced ebb and flow than what separate adaptions of each era of the story can do alone. Which is why I understand the attempt at recreating the “forgotten memories” aspect of reshooting the kids’ scenes like the fort that Ben built, eluding to his skill in quiet observation evolving into the mind of an architect later on. Essentially the film is organized around the losers meeting in a group and then splitting up so that each character has a personal journey in which they must find themselves and an object, or artifact, from their childhood that held meaning to them personally. We get bits of backstory and exposition from Mike and several scenes to trigger a flood of memories as they remember more crucial information about themselves and their past.

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This film, as entertaining as it was, is definitely a mixed bag at times when concerned with film structure. However, this is similar to the quality of the book. The book has a LOT more backstory on Derry and it’s history that slowly hints at Derry being a place dripping in hatred, racism, and a general lack of morality. Things may seem fine at the surface level, but once you start digging, one finds there to be a litany of malice that has soaked into the dirt upon which Derry was built. The book seems to point to people being the ruinous creatures that true horror emanates from, Pennywise is simply a cosmic predator of sorts, one that has found the perfect hunting ground for an eternal vulture that feeds on fear. The cast and crew make a considerable effort to take what worked from the first film and double down on those traits. Which is why the film works so well given the stumbles that it does have sprinkled throughout. It can feel chaotic, uneven, and as if you’re moving from set-piece to set-piece- structured more like a theme park or funhouse than a story at times, but it’s crafted with such genuine performances and fine-tuned pacing that it never feels boring. It never feels truly ‘scary’ or unsettling either though. The film is far funnier than I had expected, Bill Hader and James Ransone do a lot of the heavy lifting in the levity department and it works to great effect!

Other than some structural critiques and some changes from page to screen (some better than the book, others not as much), “IT Chapter 2” was mostly a success and I personally had a good time with the film. The only big disappointment for me was the end sequence, and I get it, it can be hard to visualize scenes from a book that weigh so heavily on the power of imagination that this wild one was bound to be a disappointment in most adaptions. However, that being said, I wish the filmmakers had gone for the gold and went with the book’s trippy cosmic-horror ending with Bill’s consciousness transcending the universe, then deliberating with the giant space turtle, and diving into Pennywise’s spidery abdomen and swimming through his gooey innards to crush his heart from the inside. Now that’s metal.

Final Score: 7 Losers and 1 Killer Clown from Space!