Skip to main content

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out
(2019)

(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

Craig is having fun here as “CSI KFC”, though, and he’s the most entertaining part of the picture, despite Johnson coming up short in providing really impressive investigative prowess, deductive speechifying or startling reveals. Johnson has, however, decided on a distinctive way into this whodunnit fiction, albeit, I’m unconvinced it was necessarily the deftest choice when it comes to servicing a mystery narrative; the writer-director’s reach does rather tend to exceed his grasp when it comes to impressing upon us his ingenuity. He opts to turn the mystery around, at least in part, by showing early on how Christopher Plummer’s victim, family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (a little too smugly meta as a famous mystery novelist), meets his end, and in so doing establishes the culpability, or lack thereof, of Ana de Armas’ Marta Cabrera, his trusted nurse. You know something else must be in the mix, so the smarts of Benoit, or lack thereof, are part and parcel of the piece’s unfolding.

Where Johnson shoots himself in the foot is that he never really convinces us that Benoit is formidable. Craig thinks he is, and makes him likably sure of himself and entirely unflappable, but he should be driving a degree of tension – certainly if Johnson is, as he claims, any kind of student of Christie – and for the most part, he doesn’t. Part of this is down to the way Johnson either avoids or fails to pay due diligence to the round of suspects. He can’t make the murder quite slippery enough, doesn’t spend sufficient time casting the net of suspects wider through further suspicions. Having shown the most salient facts early on, he doesn’t then offer enough sleights and twists and red herrings to justify that choice.

The children – Michael Shannon’s Walt, Toni Collette’s Joni and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Linda, along with various related parties including Don Johnson’s son-in-law Richard and Chris Evans’ vulgar grandson Ransom – are all scrupulously motivated, but because of the manner in which Johnson elects to play his game, they’re largely relegated to background figures following the initial round of interviews. When they do otherwise, namely in Evans’ case, it’s a signal of shutting down the potentials rather than broadening the canvas, pushing the proceedings more into a Joe Eszterhas direction than a Christie one. Which only serves to emphasise that Benoit isn’t a detective to marvel at – it’s even down to Marta that Ransom’s confession is secured.

And I think it’s here that Johnson most trips himself up. He has said “I think any time you sit down to write something you better have something on your mind, something that you’re, for lack of a better way of saying, a little angry about” which tells you all you need to know about why The Last Jedi received the backlash it did, and why Johnson’s sensibility might not have been the best one to call on unexpurgated, all things considered (but hey, given his preceding filmography, I wouldn’t have twigged that was making him tick, so go figure). I bet Johnson would claim, in addition to his other claims about her, that if Christie were writing today, she too would have something, for lack of a better way of saying, to be a little angry about.

I don’t think he’s especially angry about Jaeden Martell’s “alt-right troll dipshit” grandson Jacob (who is, despite Johnson’s pathological disingenuousness when pressed on the subject, clearly a response to his “incel” critics). That’s just an incidental swipe. He’s clearly exercised by all things Trumpian, however, in particular immigration and attitudes thereto, whereby you’d have to be wearing blinkers not to receive it as a message. When this is germane to the telling, it’s effective, but Johnson can’t resist the oversell. So there’s the portrayal of the spoiled, privileged, elite family, where even those who aren’t pro-Trump are inherently ugly inside and treat Marta like a skivvy. A skivvy who comes from, variously, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil, depending on which Thrombey you ask (Johnson’s sense of humour, despite his evident earnestness of message, appears not to have gone down well with some critics). Which is congruent, to a greater or less extent, with the canvas Johnson is weaving, meshing to the family’s indignance that Marta should be granted Harlan’s entire fortune, house, the whole kit and caboodle.

The problem comes from Johnson’s decision that Marta is purer than the driven snow, not just to the extent of revealing early in the proceedings – in what is surely a fundamental no-no to the good mystery writer and therefore evidence that Johnson is only paying lip service to his Christie adoration – that she is not the perpetrator, but also in a central, ludicrous character device that is played both for laughs and as a deductive tool. Marta is subject to “a regurgitative reaction to mistruth” meaning she pukes if she’s forced to lie about anything. 

Now, I’m doubtful even Johnson would claim that, if Christie were alive today, she’d have her suspects throwing up all over each other, Poirot solving his cases knee deep in vomit, but who knows what he’s capable of. It’s not only a crude device, used for crude effect – if you’re twelve, eliciting a confession by rolfing over the antagonist is probably the best thing ever. If you’re twelve – but it’s a cheap shot that illustrates all Johnson really thinks of Marta is as a doe-eyed cypher, a holier than holy avatar, rather than as a person in her own right. After all, the opposite to someone, an immigrant, who cannot deceive is a compulsive liar… like the wall-building patriot in the White House? Which means Johnson is effectively using the entire character as a cheap shot.

That’s unfortunate in many respects. It means Johnson is doubling down on the things he didn’t handle so well in The Last Jedi. It means de Armas – who is really good, so much so, she manages to mask her screenwriter’s deficiencies for much of the time – is rudely short-changed. Most of all, it means, in Johnson’s attempts to make a statement, he undermines his narrative. The twist that Ransom tried to off grandpa is rock solid, but Johnson fundamentally doesn’t understand the idea of using subtext or underlying theme to support the story. It’s foregrounding or nothing for him. Like Evans, his blunder leaves him under a sea of chunder.

He has cast his movie beautifully, though, and crucially, he’s a fine director on top of that. Lakeith Stanfield isn’t especially well used, even if he does point out “the dumbest car chase of all time”, but Frank Oz is perfect in a cameo as Harlan’s lawyer. And it’s nice to see M Emmet Walsh (I’ll be totally honest and admit I wasn’t even sure he was still with us). Evans is a lot of fun (although all his best bits are in the trailers). Most of everyone else leaves you wanting more, though. Generally, I get less and less convinced of Johnson as time wears on. He never quite sticks the landing. I thought Brick was pretty much a perfect pastiche – I probably shouldn’t revisit it – but his skill as a director is increasingly undermined by his unevenness as a writer (the biggest problem among the current generation of prolific writer-directors tends to be the writer part). Knives Out might have been a classic murder mystery if he didn’t keep getting in his own way.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

So long, sky trash!

Star Wars The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Man, that’s one big bitch cockroach.

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Everyone loves Bruce Campbell. He’s eminently lovable; self-depracating, a natural wit, enthusiastic about his “art” and interactive with his fans. It’s easy to be seduced into cutting anything he shows up in some slack, just by virtue of his mighty Bruce-ness. I know, I’ve done it. Unfortunately, not everything he does has the crazy, slapstick energy of his most famous role. Most of it doesn’t. Don Cascarelli’s Elvis versus Mummy movie has a considerable cult following, based as much on the cult of Don as the cult of Bruce, but its charms are erratic ones. As usual, however, Campbell is the breezy highlight.

The blames rests with Cascarelli, since he adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s short story. The premise is a great high concept mash-up; Elvis Presley, a nursing home resident in declining health, must fight off an ancient Egyptian mummy. Is he really Elvis, or Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff? Or both, as the King claims to have switched places with the real Haff so as t…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.