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: Uncut Gems

Written by Ronald Bronstein, & Josh and Benny Safdie, and directed by The Safdie Brothers, “Uncut Gems” is the ultimate anxiety inducing film. The film seems designed to put viewers on edge, to drag them into the world of New York City Jewelers and more specifically into the realm of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). Howard’s a man of conflict and obsession. As a New York City Jewel salesman that makes every ill-conceived, high risk, and unwise choice possible with his life, Howard is a man whose entire existence is at the boiling point. Howard’s relationship with addiction, stress, and the next big score is incredibly dangerous. As soon as the film begins we’re introduced to Howard putting the funding from several loans and gambling rackets immediately into even more high risk bets on the NBA. Which is where Kevin Garnett comes in. The Boston Celtics star athlete is brought in from one of Howard’s many lures he’s thrown out into the abyss and right when Howard receives an extremely rare opal from Ethiopia his pure passion for the rock explodes and he decides to show Garnett. Unfortunately for Howard, Garnett immediately has a sort of vision or soul bond with the rare rock and wants to buy it from Howard. The thing is, Howard’s already several steps into another financial scam to sell the opal at an auction for an incredibly inflated price. His admiration for the basketball player outshines his reasoning and he allows Garnett to “borrow” the Opal for his championship game. This is but one of many, MANY, poor decisions that Howard makes over the course of several days.

I’ll leave the details about the plot points for those of you interested enough to check this one out, it’s definitely a film I recommend if you’re okay with a near constant assault on your nerve endings, but it was an exhilarating and unique movie-going experience. The specifics aren’t exactly the point of the film anyways, at least as I view it. It’s more about the onslaught of noise, the squirming in your seat when Howard does the exact opposite thing that any sane person would do, but Sandler’s performance keeps you entrenched in the fury and downward spiral of Howard’s actions. Dressed in his best Lando Calrissian attire, Howard is always on the move, always hustling whether he’s on the streets, walking through hallways, lobbies, he never stops talking and never stops moving to the next step in his countless plans already in motion. The score really stood out to me, it’s a cacophony of juxtaposing heavy synth sounds not unlike that of “Blade Runner”‘s score mixed with Saxophone solos and an eight-person choir. The mix of an incredibly fast-paced and unsettling narrative with the slow and almost cosmic transcendence of the score was eerie and a brilliant choice in my opinion. There’s also the dialogue. It’s mixed and directed to be more realistic. Everybody talks over each other and no one stops to listen to each other until their profits are endangered. It’s a bit gross, but refreshing, it reflects the choice to showcase New York like the sleazy and hustling place that it is, seemingly a throwback to the 1970’s filmmaking done in New York.

“Uncut Gems” is almost more of an assault on your senses than a narrative based film. The experiential flurry that is this film is recommended, but with a warning to those weak of heart. This is a film wherein a flawed, but somehow endearing (thanks to Sandler’s performance), man schemes, gambles, and risks everything in his life. It’s a cycle of mutual grime, but it’s an interesting way to start the year, and the decade. Happy New Year people!

Final Score: 1 Uncut Gem

*For fun, check out this “Actors on Actors” discussion Variety put together between Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler who both chat each other up on their recent performances:

*Also, here’s an NPR article on the score of the film, definitely worth a read:

https://www.npr.org/2019/12/28/791473556/inside-uncut-gems-a-cosmic-score-in-a-frantic-film

film

Review: Get Out

Written and directed by Jordan Peele of “Key and Peele” fame, “Get Out” is the directorial debut from the sketch show comedian. Peele seems to have done his horror homework because his first feature achieves what many movies in the genre fail to do; create an atmosphere of tension that doesn’t rely on jump-scares to unsettle the audience. This is the type of horror movie that I revel in, the kind that hints and nudges you from thinking “That’s kinda creepy..” and transforms into “Get out man! Just get outta there!” by the time the third act rolls around. I prefer psychological horror or thrillers more than the stereotypes of the genre that movies like “Paranormal Activity” or “Saw” suggest. To each their own though, my favorite horror film is still “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. “Get Out” is more of a blend of horror and comedy, but the comedy is used to great effect when the story needs it. Particularly from Rod Williams (Milton ‘Lil Rel’ Howery) Chris’ good friend and TSA agent who he frequently calls for a voice of reason, and a good laugh.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, a young photographer whose in a relationship with Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and is about to head off to her parents house in the wealthy secluded suburbs. Chris is a little anxious while packing, Rose prods and he reveals his unease about the potential for racial tension, he asks, “do they know I’m black?” She paws off the comment saying that her parents aren’t racist, just friendly and awkward, forewarning Chris that her dad would have voted for Obama for a third time if he had the opportunity. He accepts that and is soon met on their doorstep with an amicable “We’re huggers!” from Rose’s father Dean (Bradley Whitford) and her mother Missy (Catherine Keener). In fact other than a few curiously worded statements from Rose’s father about his near genocidal hatred of deer and his father losing a spot on the 1936 Olympics team to Jesse Owens, (who famously won four gold medals in track and field and subsequently marring Hitler’s propaganda about the supposed greatness of the Ayran race) everything seemed well enough. That is, until he spots the other two black people on the property, Walter the groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina the maid in the house (Betty Gabriel).

Mood and feeling permeate the remainder of the plot as “Get Out” plays with our expectations and is measured in its pace, allowing us to become equally unsettled alongside Chris. Things ultimately ratchet up in intensity once Missy Armitage suggests trying her method of hypnosis to cure Chris’ “nasty little habit” of smoking. The film holds no blatant twists per se, things unfold at a clip where the true intentions of the Armitage clan are revealed in due time. I’ll leave the rest to be discovered upon watching, but it is a fascinating pairing of clever race relation anxieties and something a bit more… cerebral. What I loved about the film is how Peele has taken inspired cues from classics of the creepy variety to create something new and original. “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”, “Rosemary’s baby”, “The Stepford Wives”, “Misery”, and “The Shining” have all been referenced by Peele in interviews when asked about his influences and where he draws inspiration from and “Get out” is that much better for having the patience to shoot the film the way he did. He even noted that the original intent of the film when he wrote it was to make a point to prove that just because we elected a black man for president twice, the country wasn’t in some fairy-tale version of a post racial society. Hard to argue against that reality now, isn’t it?

Final Score: 1 Neurosurgeon, 1 hypnotist, and 1 dead deer