Year of Release: 2019 Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, LaKeith Stanfield, and Christopher Plummer.
Between Looper and The Last Jedi, as talented as Rian Johnson clearly is, it was beginning to seem that he would overthink his film plots, writing himself into a corner with no completely satisfying resolution to all the threads and themes he was tying together. Therefore, when I saw the trailers for Knives Out, a comedic whodunnit, I was intrigued, knowing it would be a riveting mystery with plenty of twists, but I was also concerned it would suffer from the same drawbacks that I thought hurt his previous two films.
I don’t know if it was juggling the large cast of characters, having one central twist that everything leads to, or just a case of the third time being the charm, but Knives Out has no such shortcomings and is one of the most clever and enjoyable films of this year.
Johnson knows the expected beats of a murder mystery, and he respects his audience enough to assume they know those beats too. Predictable guesses are quickly subverted, and Johnson is a master of using our expectations as a means of misdirection. Recaps and standard expository material are briskly presented to focus on the driving forces of the movie—the eccentric characters portrayed with juicy flare by the all-star cast and the not particularly subtle but fittingly biting social commentary.
At the head of the cast is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a cross between Columbo, Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and even a touch of Clouseau. He references Conan Doyle’s detective stories and humorously strikes one piano key as if he knows when someone is lying to him. The eccentric accent is some sort of cross between French and Southern American, and it’s a fitting cultural blend in a movie that wants to exalt the meek and humble immigrants while casting down the mighty white nationalists.
The meek and humble immigrant is Marta, played by Ana de Armas, who serves Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) as a nurse and friend after coming to America from Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, or whichever South/Central American country pops into the mind of one of Harlan’s family members at the current moment. Most of the family wanted her to attend Harlan’s funeral, but they were all outvoted.
Marta is equally honest as she is meek, and Blanc refers to her inability to lie as a “regurgitatory reflex to un-truthing.” Therefore, when Harlan is found with his throat slit by apparent suicide, Blanc enlists her as his Watson to learn the truth about each family members’ secrets, especially since Blanc received a large sum of cash from an anonymous source to investigate foul play in regards to Harlan’s death.
Most of the family obviously has a motive for wanting Harlan dead, and Johnson spins those motives into a farce of the family politics common at most large family gatherings. It’s especially fitting and comic given then film’s Thanksgiving release. At the same time, Johnson continues his twisting of the tropes one would find in an Agatha Christie mystery with developments that connect the politics and the intrigue as apparent altruism quickly turns into more selfish motives.
In addition to the three main characters, each cast member is given enough material that they make a memorable impression in their supporting roles—all nine members of the family, the maid, the family lawyer, and the two police officers assisting Benoit Blanc. As Harlan’s two surviving children Linda and Walt, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon both display the entitlement of spoiled rich adults. Their children Ransom (Chris Evans) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) have taken that to further extremes. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) fits right into the family’s arrogance and materialism. The scene where and he and Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of Harlan’s deceased son, spar is probably all too familiar to most Americans. Joni and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are the liberal black sheep of the family, at least as long as it’s convenient to be so.
I’ve avoided saying as much as possible about the plot, and it is definitely best to avoid reviews which discuss any of it in detail. The best surprises are not only the mystery reveals and the insignificant details that aren’t, but the ways in which Johnson makes sure every character gets what they deserve.
Knives Out is a film that understands the value of entertainment, and Rian Johnson delivers that in spades on multiple levels, from the thrill of the mystery to the social justice themes. The final scene masterfully ties everything together not only narratively but visually as well, closing a highly worthwhile murder mystery.
Personal recommendation: A
Year of release: 1961 Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Lars Passgård.
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.
“Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?” – C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, chapters 1 & 2 respectively
In wrestling with the grief caused by the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis gave voice to some of the darkest fears and notions that anyone can experience in a life of faith: not that there is no God, but that He’s a cruel, heartless sadist. Ingmar Bergman’s “faith trilogy” wrestles with similar questions, wondering how an omnipotent being could also be all good.
Through a Glass Darkly serves as the opening film of the trilogy. The title is a very obvious reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, indicating the (very slightly) more optimistic outlook of this film compared to the two that follow it—Winter Light and The Silence, the titles alone which suggest the dimming light and dying faith of their protagonists and their director.
However, Through a Glass Darkly holds onto hope of one day seeing face to face, acknowledging both the terror and joy of such a possibility.
The frightening potential of beholding God can be seen through Karin (Harriet Andersson), a mentally ill woman who believes her schizophrenic episodes are visions of God. Her final vision—a frightful and horrific analogy of God as an attacking spider that is further explored in Bergman’s subsequent two films, which led to them being labeled a trilogy along with this one—is starkly reminiscent of Lewis’ line, “Deceive yourself no longer.”
At the same time the arc of Karin’s younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård) shows the hope and joy of direct communication with God. After spending the majority of the film trying to please his emotionally and physically distant father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and having his relationship with his sister fall apart in increasingly destructive ways, the final scene is a heartfelt face to face exchange with his father about the nature of God. Minus’ takeaway is one of the most startling lines in the film, which summarizes everyone’s need to give and receive love, not just with other people but with God as well.
The lone outsider to this dysfunctional family is Karin’s husband Martin (Max von Sydow), who has clearly understood the “for worse” part of his vows. He confides to David that after Karin was released from the mental hospital, the doctors told him she would never recover. Her illness takes an increasing toll on their marriage, and her family is not much support with Minus’ stony disgust toward his sister’s behavior and David’s selfish artistic desire to exploit his daughter’s illness for one of his novels. In spite of this, Martin’s loyalty to Karin never wavers, regardless of the pain outside forces and people bring into their relationship.
I believe that is an additional metaphor for faith. It is a relationship with God, and while outside factors and other people may attempt to poison it, it is still a relationship from which we should not flee. Even if those forces turn it into a burden, faith is still something beautiful and worth preserving.
As the son of a Lutheran pastor, faith and doubt is at the center of many of Bergman’s films, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in this film, Winter Light, and The Silence. The necessity of doubt as a means to enrich one’s faith, or learning to see with clouded vision, is captured through the insecurities and harshness of the world which the characters here inhabit.
Karin’s mental illness compounds those insecurities, and her explanation that voices tell her what to do may seem as if Bergman is saying religion is a form of mental illness, especially since her final breakdown is caused by her encounter with her malevolent notion of “god.” However, Bergman follows that scene with a moment of salvation for all the characters, which can first be heard approaching in the midst of the Karin’s encounter with the spider god.
It is this moment of salvation where the notion that God is Love starts, but only starts, to become clear. Prior to that, any role of the divine in the lives of the characters was seen, in the words of the title, through a glass darkly. That darkness was intensified by the unhealthy ways Karin, as well as her lonely brother and workaholic father, sought love. In the end, Love wants her healthy and for the family to have a functional relationship.
A lakeside family visit that goes to hell is not an unusual premise for a film, but Bergman’s use of that setting to depict a literal walk through hell with all its doubts and uncertainties creates two parallel journeys about doubt and mental illness that coalesce at the same rock bottom moment. Both trajectories are beautifully captured by Sven Nykvist’s quietly observant camera, inviting us to reflect on what’s before us, but also reminding us there’s more out of the frame that cannot be easily explained.
To continue the Bible verse referenced in the title, for now, we and the protagonists know in part, and when faced with the evil in their lives, it may remain that way. However, there are tangible moments of goodness and grace, even if the coexistence of those moments with tragedy seems like a contradiction. Or as a quote from St. Augustine says, “If you are able to comprehend it, it is not God.”
Personal Recommendation: A+
Year of release: 2019 Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, and Tilda Swinton.
“This is going to end badly.” That line quickly becomes a recurring punchline from Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), whose last name might be a subtle reference to the previous collaboration between Driver and Jim Jarmusch. In a film overflowing with meta jokes, it’s difficult to overlook such a similarity. It’s also a bold choice for a repeated line, since it will give plenty of fodder to critics who dislike The Dead Don’t Die.
According to IMDB trivia, Tilda Swinton gave Jarmusch the idea for a zombie film while they were working on his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. Much like that film redefined the conventions of vampire films in service of a story focused on the role of art and relationships in a polluted world that does not value the good, true and beautiful, The Dead Don’t Die redefines the conventions of zombie films in service of a story focused on surviving in a world that is literally turning into Hell.
The Dead Don’t Die is certainly more cynical than Only Lovers Left Alive, but it is an apocalyptic film taking place in a world that has dug too deep down the rabbit hole of its own destruction. It also was made five years later than Jarmusch’s earlier film, and the world has now seen a racist, bullying fascist use his office to roll back environmental protections, lock children in cages, and peddle countless lies as “facts” every day.
If there’s any question as to whether Jarmusch intends to skewer America’s current administration and its supporters, Steve Buscemi plays a racist farmer who wears a red baseball cap with the words, “Keep America white again.”
Jarmusch is clearly disgusted by the state of American politics, but he doesn’t let his disgust give way to anger. Instead he channels it into brilliantly exploiting the fine, fine line between horror and comedy, ruthlessly highlighting the absurdity of a world choosing to endanger its own existence. Similar to Aronofsky’s Noah, which showed an apocalypse that resulted from humankind’s destruction of all creation, The Dead Don’t Die shows an apocalypse that results from polar fracking, which knocks the earth off its axis, changing its rotation, which in turn alters day and night lengths, which enables the dead to rise. How could such a scenario end other than badly?
The inevitably of the movie’s conclusion enables Jarmusch to play the resigned, deadpan, matter-of-fact humor for all it’s worth. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth a lot, especially with Chloë Sevigny’s everywoman Officer Mindy Morrison anchoring the normal human reactions to the horror. When Driver’s Officer Peterson tells Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) that the gruesome attack on the local diner owner was perpetrated by zombies, ghouls, the undead, the suggestion is as calmly met as if it were as common as a pack of wild animals.
The omniscience of Officer Peterson serves another greater purpose beyond the hilarious running punchline throughout the movie. Driver’s banter with Bill Murray whenever they’re driving is hilariously self-referential, and it culminates in a fantastic scene that underscores the purpose of art and the role of the artist. Even at its darkest, art holds a mirror up to the world, as the artist guides his creation down a path that hopefully gives us some understanding of the world as it as and as it should be.
Jarmusch homages other works of art as well, from Nosferatu to Night of the Living Dead to Star Wars, all of which highlight in one way or another that this version of Centerville, PA is very much not as it should be. The person best prepared for the zombie apocalypse is Hermit Bob (another frequent Jarmusch collaborator, Tom Waits) who lives in the local woods and provides a running commentary on the action. His detachment from worldly materialism is his saving grace. Science fiction and samurai films both receive a tribute (and hilarious conclusion) through the town’s new mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Caleb Landy Jones plays a nerdy gas station attendant whose extensive horror film knowledge helps him and Hank (Danny Glover) fare slightly better than most of the other characters.
However, because the dead don’t die, as the theme song by Sturgill Simpson says, the film is obviously going to end badly. At the same time, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of hope. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its head. Whether that is intended as a call for impeachment or completely cutting off our dependence on fracking and other environmentally detrimental procedures is debatable. Either way, the metaphor clearly suggests the difficulty and necessity of ceasing the destruction of our planet and its inhabitants.
With a large cast of quickly developed characters, bizarre and extremely dry humor, strong political overtones, and deliberate avoidance of any zombie film tropes, The Dead Don’t Die is obviously going to be a strong cup of coffee that not everyone appreciates. Perhaps the best litmus test for enjoying it is this. We hear the title song play over the opening credits; two minutes later it comes on the radio, and Adam Driver explains it’s the theme song, so it’s familiar. If that strikes you as hilarious, the rest of Jarmusch’s self-aware, environmentally conscious zombie apocalypse should as well.
Personal Recommendation: A
Year of release: 2019 Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Gemma Jones.
An unreliable narrator covers a lot of storytelling sins. If a plot point seems unbelievable or outlandish, but it’s coming from the lips of a narrator who’s extremely dishonest, an addict, or highly depressed, that plot point can and should be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of Rocketman, highlights from Elton John’s life are shaped into a musical fantasy, framed by narration from Elton recounting his life’s story in group therapy.
That life story follows the standard beats of a biopic: talented child becomes famous, hits rock bottom, and then turns his life around. There’s nothing particularly new about this sort of musician biopic, especially compared with last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which largely follows the same narrative pattern.
However, when compared with Bohemian Rhapsody, all the ways Rocketman excels become apparent. As Roger Ebert famously said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Rocketman embraces its musical form and doesn’t shoehorn songs into a clichéd narrative. Instead, it works a narrative around those songs much like Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, or Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
After an elaborately and outlandishly costumed Elton Hercules John (Taron Egerton) marches into a recovery group at the film’s beginning, the film flashes back and forth between that meeting and memories of his life, which ultimately led Elton to seek help with his addictions. The first memory receives a song of its own as Elton sings, “I was justified, when I was five…” and then the film transitions into a full-scale production number of “The Bitch Is Back” to set up Reginald Dwight’s (Matthew Illesley and later Kit Connor) childhood and serve as a welcome to the show number.
Much like 2007’s Beatles inspired Across the Universe, the songs are re-orchestrated to fit the context in which they are being sung. For example, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is used for a bar fight and passage of time as Elton plays there for several years. The overall effect throughout the film is both a moving tribute to Elton John and his music and an effective use of the music to underscore the drama.
The drama draws from mostly well-known episodes in Elton John’s life. His classical piano background, which is apparent in all of his songwriting, and his prodigious ability are the focus of the first section. The latter is obviously exaggerated, but that is in perfect keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. His meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) by chance and their years long collaboration as well as Elton’s abusive relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden) form most of the film’s narrative. The backstory is a little too thorough, trying to cover too many details, and it slightly bogs down the film’s pacing. This is the type of story where a nonlinear recollection of memories from Elton at rock bottom would probably have made a stronger effect.
However, despite the predictable trajectory of the narrative, the film soars in its presentation of the music. The best musical choice among many great ones is the song that frames the film. Coupled with Elton walking into therapy is an instrumental of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which returns as an 11 o’clock number at a crucial moment between Bernie and Elton. Since that song is about dreams not turning out as planned and walking away from the razzle dazzle of showbiz, it is a perfect and highly poignant choice, especially when the chords of that song are the first thing we hear in the film.
One song I was truly surprised not to hear was “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” For a film that takes this unflinching a look at the dangers of addiction, there were countless places where it would have been a perfect fit, either as a testament to Bernie’s support through Elton’s substance abuse or in regards to Elton acknowledging his homosexuality and escaping his unhealthy relationships.
As Elton, Taron Egerton does a commendable job singing some rather difficult songs and convincingly portrays the high highs and low lows of Elton’s life through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Dexter Fletcher, after completing the last couple scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody, shows he does have a good eye for staging musical numbers.
Lee Hall, who collaborated with Elton John on Billy Elliot the Musical, has penned a script that honors his friend and his music while refusing to lionize him or his mistakes. Most beautifully, it shows the power of any great art, in this case Elton John’s music, to transform, inspire, and be a means for both creator and partaker to share in something greater beyond themselves. And for that, I’m exceedingly grateful to have seen this movie too.
Personal Recommendation: B+
Year of release: 2019 Directed by Chris Butler. Voices of Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, and Emma Thompson.
Since their feature film Coraline in 2009, which remains my favorite film for that year, Laika Studios has been high on my radar. Unfortunately, the subsequent films they released—ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings—all fell short of the greatness of their first feature, some more than others. At the same time, all of those films had many moments of inspired brilliance and breathtaking awe that endeared all of those works to me in spite of their flaws.
With Missing Link, the fifth film from the studio, they have once again hit a home run on par with their debut feature. Tragically, given its poor box office returns, it seems that American audiences have either lost interest in Laika films or have not heard about this one at all.
Either scenario is a tremendous pity, because Missing Link is not only a return to perfect form (because if we’re honest Laika never lost good form), but it is also a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of most family entertainment currently being produced.
The list of the film’s virtues includes, but is not limited to:
- It showcases the values of self-sacrifice and open mindedness as the narcissistic protagonist learns to overcome his selfishness.
- It has no surprise villain. Indeed, there is a moment, when the saturation of that trope in recent family films causes one to think a character is going to be a surprise villain, but thankfully that is not the case.
- The villains are not rationalized, (a mistake in two of Laika’s previous films) and their wicked actions lead to their own undoing, and the kindhearted protagonist even tries to prevent them.
- There are no dead parents/guardians, although to be fair, the protagonist is an adult. However, that’s another overused trope it is nice to see avoided.
- Director Chris Butler writes a compelling, interesting female character, giving her some of the best lines in the film, and he does not sideline her.
- It avoids nearly every family film cliché with aplomb by taking interesting and dramatically believable turns whenever it seems a cliché is going to occur.
- It features an extremely convincing reexamination of childhood dreams and heroes, acknowledging there is often something far greater we need to acknowledge in order to mature.
- The film manages to cross examine and critique toxic masculinity and the sexist, racist patriarchal norms of the 19th century without being preposterously anachronistic or obnoxiously contrived.
- It has an all-around fantastic voice cast
- It looks absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as all Laika films do.
- It even manages to make the requisite poop jokes clever.
The story centers around Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who longs to be admitted to the elite explores club in London, but is excluded by the sinister Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) since all Sir Lionel’s adventures concern chasing monsters, which the rigid fundamentalist adamantly refuses to believe exist. The hilarious opening sequence with the Loch Ness Monster proves otherwise.
Sir Lionel receives a note from a fan in America asking him to prove the existence of the Sasquatch. What he finds there is a friendly, fur-covered, 8-foot tall missing link between humans and apes he aptly names Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Mr. Link, whose real name is a funny and touching surprise, wishes to recruit Sir Lionel, who is “the real deal,” to help him travel to the Himalayas so he can live with his cousins, the Yeti, in Shangri-La.
Their Jules Verne inspired journey takes them to Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a former lover of Frost’s who is still rightly disgusted by his selfishness and vanity. Meanwhile, they must dodge the repeated assassination attempts of Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceby to prevent Frost from ever proving his discoveries exist.
Following in the steps of Jules Verne, the adventure reaches the glorious climax promised from the beginning. The visuals of that destination are some of the most gorgeous stop motion imagery Laika has crafted, and that is in addition to a Yeti queen voiced by Emma Thompson. However, the cross-examination of those goals brings into relief that when we form our aspirations and choose our heroes for the sake of worldly fame, we will not only be disappointed but that will often prevent us from growing and maturing as well.
Not only does the destination matter, but the manner in which one arrives there is equally important. Missing Link acknowledges the importance of both in a funny, beautifully and painstakingly crafted adventure that celebrates both its destination and its journey.
Personal Recommendation: A
Content advisory: Some rather intense peril, sinister villains, and mildly crass humor. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment