Posts Tagged mystery

Knives Out

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

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.    Starring Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, and Derek Jacobi.

As an opening disclaimer, I am one of the world’s biggest fan’s of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Christie’s novel with Albert Finney as Poirot, and I am also one of the world’s biggest fans of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, so despite the lousy trailers, I went into this hoping it would be fun and passable, even if it vastly paled in comparison to Lumet’s film. While it’s certainly not all bad, and a few stretches are good, there is very little good in this Murder on the Orient Express.

Let’s start with the opening. To explain why Hercule Poirot is riding the Orient Express, there is a pointless, obnoxiously action heavy prologue where he solves a theft, which is about to cause a riot in Istanbul. This was one of the most depressing scenes I’ve seen all year, mostly because in its laborious introduction of Christie’s famous detective (he’s Belgian, the greatest detective in the world, has an extravagant mustache, and other peculiar quirks) it became quite apparent that there is an entire generation who has no idea who Poirot and Miss Marple are. There are also poop-jokes, because what’s a whodunit without some feces thrown in?

After solving this crime, Poirot boards the Orient Express for a vacation, where he meets the ensemble of Famous Actors, all acting so blatantly suspicious that the answer to the crime should be instantly obvious even if one had never heard of Christie’s novel before. Indeed, the solution to the mystery is so obvious, it’s baffling that the world’s greatest detective takes so long to solve it.

All of the cast is decent, and a few in particular stand out, but no one holds a candle to their counterpart in the 1974 Lumet film, which is mostly the film’s fault, because none of the supporting actors are given enough time to establish their characters, other than Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., and Johnny Depp. Even Judi Dench is not as good as Wendy Hiller as the Princess Dragomiroff. Michelle Pfeiffer is sadly wasted as Mrs. Hubbard, who has a much smaller role here, but at the same time, as good as Pfeiffer is in her limited screen time, no one can ever top Lauren Bacall. I admit I actually more or less enjoyed Branagh’s extravagant scenery chewing as Poirot. Finally, Depp is surprisingly good as the thuggish but frightened Ratchet; it’s one of his best performances in some time, which is sadly not saying much.

The pacing of the film lurches and stalls until the murder, after which it finally gets going, and for awhile, it was fairly enjoyable. The interrogation scenes were fun, even if they were parade of celebrities. Unfortunately, someone felt the need to interject sloppily filmed actions scenes whenever the dialogue really got going, because what’s a whodunit without some punches and bullets?

The most glaring absence from this film is Sean Connery’s line about the necessity of trial by jury as the bedrock of civilized society to determine guilt or innocence. In its place is Poirot’s internal wrestling with whether good people can do bad things, which culminates in one of the most horrifically miscalculated finales, itself a continuation of the sloppily filmed action scenes that punctuated the film.

There are also countless reminders that racism existed in 1934, with Poirot being an anachronistically woke character, which to be fair, Branagh manages to pull off despite the ham-fisted lines of dialogue he responds to. While there is an attempt to tie the racism into the plot, once the mystery gets going, the characters’ prejudices are thrown out the window.

Finally, there is the threat of a sequel with a gratuitous reference to Christie’s next most famous Poirot mystery, Death on the Nile. While the 1978 film of that title certainly has room for improvement, this outing gave me no confidence that these are the filmmakers to attempt it.

Personal recommendation: C

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My Cousin Rachel

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Roger Michell.                Starring Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, and Pierfrancesco Favino.

Compare and contrast the following sentences. “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” “Did she; or didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” One of them is the opening to a masterpiece of 20th century literature, which brilliantly sets the stage for a world balanced between beauty and menace with an aura of perpetual ambiguity, wracked by guilt, inner torment, and memories. The other is the opening line of a film adapted from the Wikipedia summary of the same novel.

I will say right now, that on a technical level, this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is not a bad film. A couple clumsy edits aside, the cinematography is (mostly) gorgeous, the production design is exquisite, the acting is competent, and the directing passable. None of that makes up for the utter ruination of the novel, which as full disclosure, is one of my three favorite books.

The problems begin with the vapid opening line, which heavy-handedly suggests the conclusion of the story rather than introducing us to Philip (Sam Claflin) and giving us a background to make him sympathetic even as he makes reckless decisions throughout the course of the story. That background, which takes nearly eighty pages in the novel, is bull dozed through in about ten minutes as a prologue before the title card. That pacing barely relents for the remainder of the film.

We see throughout the film that Philip is a rash imprudent man, but since the film races through the story with equal recklessness, we never learn why. Thus we never understand the full tragedy or motivation behind his often conflicting actions.

We learn Philip was orphaned as a young boy, and his wealthy older cousin Ambrose took him in, despite the church ladies insisting a young boy needs to grow up around a woman, which is a hurried way of acknowledging Philip’s sexism and difficulty in relating to women. We do not see any of Philip’s fond or troubled memories with Ambrose that we do in the book, and the film completely omits the crucial detail that Philip worshiped Ambrose, embodying both his virtues and his faults.

The film then rushes to its next plot point to check off: Ambrose fell ill and went to Italy to recover. There, despite his self-affirmed perpetual bachelorhood, he fell in love with Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and married her. Then, Ambrose wrote one more letter to England in which he implored Philip to save him from Rachel who was poisoning him. Philip set out for Italy immediately, consumed with hatred for his murderous witch of a cousin, only to learn Ambrose had died of a brain tumor that made him paranoid and irrational.

Shortly afterwards Rachel comes to England to meet Philip, and when he sees her, his resentment instantly melts. In the scene where they first meet, Weisz embodies du Maurier’s title character so perfectly, that for a brief moment, I was almost swept away along with Philip and tempted to forgive the film its faults, but then it went and butchered her most crucial scenes by rushing through them, which undermined the gravity of Philip’s former antagonism.

The biggest problem with this film is that it seems to think that fidelity to the novel merely consists of hitting all the major plot points. With that it fundamentally misunderstands Daphne du Maurier. No one reads a du Maurier novel primarily for its plot. The biggest weakness of her breakthrough novel Jamaica Inn is the thin and kind of predictable plot. Nonetheless, that novel was successful because of its foreboding atmosphere, generating sympathy for its conflicted protagonist thrown into unethical situations against her will, and because of the way it powerfully painted the Cornish countryside as simultaneously dangerous and liberating. Foreboding atmosphere, morally compromised yet sympathetic protagonists, and a love for the Cornish countryside by the sea are the three things that made du Maurier the great writer she was. This film is interested in none of them.

It needs to be mentioned that Philip’s relationship with Louise (Holliday Grainger), the daughter of his godfather and estate manager Mr. Kendall (Iain Glen), and her unreturned affection for him is also glazed over, which makes her presence at later climactic scenes irrelevant. More damningly, it makes the film’s coda, which is not in the book, appalling not only for the way it downplays the horror of the story, but also for its sexist treatment of Louise and exoneration of Philip.

The greatest strength of du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel is the perpetual ambiguity that hangs over the story. Did Rachel murder Ambrose, or did he have a brain tumor? Is she just careless with money, or is she hiding dark secrets for which she needs money? And finally, is she plotting to murder Philip, or not? The film takes very clear sides, so clear that the attempt to turn the tables is completely unbelievable. In stark contrast, the book builds its atmosphere of horror and tragedy by constantly allowing the reader to second guess himself. That sort of subtlety is as foreign to the film as Rachel’s mysterious Italian friend Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) is to England.

The last half hour of my screening was permeated with snickering from the audience. I could hardly blame them; the plot points which made sense in the novel, considering the guilt and uncertainty plaguing Philip, seemed ludicrous here with the film’s one sided approach to the central conflict. If there ever was an example of how to ruin a piece of source material while adhering to its major plot points, this would be it.

There will be worse movies I see this year; there have already been worse movies released. There will be none that I hate more than My Cousin Rachel.

 

Personal Recommendation: D-

Content advisory: Two non-graphic sexual encounters, an anachronistic obscenity, and a mild aura of menace.                 MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

 

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Don’t Look Now

A fantastic film newly released by the Criterion Collection. I am very grateful that Ken Morefield gave me the opportunity to write it up.

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Prisoners

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Denis Villeneuve.       Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo.

Prisoners is shaping up to be the 2013 entry in the category of “films which everyone else really admires but Evan passionately dislikes.”  At least I do not dislike it nearly as much as I dislike last two years’ entries in that category.  And I promise to try not to be too snarky, but I cannot make any guarantees when I dislike a film this much.

In the movie’s defense, there are two strong points: there is a late third act plot twist that is kept hidden pretty well, and it does cast a new light on proceedings, even if it also creates other problems.  And the best thing about the movie is Roger Deakins’ cinematography, lots of long still takes, which would have worked well with the material to create a tense atmosphere if anything else had worked.

Very early in Prisoners, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating local child molesters, and he stops by a local Catholic church to question the priest.  Loki finds the priest passed out with several empty liquor bottles.  He begins investigating and finds a secret basement door.  Inside the basement, he finds a man who was beaten to death after being tied to a chair with his mouth duct taped.  The priest (an elderly man who walks very slowly and could never have overpowered a younger man) says the dead man came to him in confession and told him that he (the dead man) was at a war with God, and to make people lose their faith, he had kidnapped, molested, and murdered sixteen children, and boasted that he was going to continue doing so.  Therefore, the priest decided the only thing he could do without breaking the seal of Confession was to kill the man.  Believe it or not, the priest is telling the truth, and the movie ultimately vindicates his actions.

EDIT: After some discussion with friends, I will admit that “vindicates” is too strong a word.  “Excuses” or “turns a blind eye to” is a better way to express my opinion of the film’s conclusion.

The priest’s actions are vindicated excused by Keller, played by Hugh Jackman in a performance so over the top that it reminded me of John Goodman’s “You’re entering a world of pain” tirades from The Big Lebowski.  While absurdly over the top performances often work well in comedies, Prisoners is about as far removed from a comedy as possible.

Keller becomes obsessed with Alex (Paul Dano), believing against all odds that Alex kidnapped and is holding his daughter and her friend captive.  To extract information Keller sinks to dehumanizing levels of torture that made most of the audience gasp and cringe in shock.  I found his tactics so repulsive and alienating that I was hoping he never found his daughter.  She didn’t deserve a father as brutal and unethical as that.  Even the sadistic Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was more humane than Jackman’s character.

The third act twist (half of which I predicted within 20 minutes of the opening) makes it quite clear that Keller’s actions were no different than the kidnapper/molester/murderer’s.  The villain kidnapped and tortured two six year olds, and Keller kidnapped and came within inches of killing a man with the mentality of an eight year old.  However, Keller had good intentions while the villain did not, so as Keller’s wife tells Loki, Keller is a good man who did what he needed to do for his family.  As Loki silently nods, it makes logical sense that the murdering vigilante priest is also good man for doing what he needed to do to protect innocent children and atone for his past crimes.

There is one scene when Keller begins the Lord’s Prayer.  When he gets to the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those…” he stops.  It is a nice sentiment, but it is too little too late, and the rationalization which follows undermines the effect that the scene could have had.

Towards the end of the film, Loki thinks he has solved the mystery.  But director Dennis Villeneuve still wishes to make the audience squirm.  Therefore, Loki- a skilled cop –  inadvertently releases a bunch of poisonous snakes that one of the suspects kept only for a ludicrous plot point.  That was the point when I officially gave up on the film.

There is an obligatory scene when Loki thinks he has failed, shoves everything off his desk, and then repeatedly smashes his keyboard.  At that point, I started laughing.  Even though an innocent man has been tortured within inches of death, a man has committed suicide, two girls have been presumably drugged, raped, and murdered, that scene was so extreme I lost it.  Then Loki notices a clue in a crime scene photo he had missed; IT IS THE CLUE HE NEEDS.  I half expected him to jump up and dance around while the “Hallelujah Chorus” played; it would not have been out of place.

I can imagine why Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard would agree to do this.  The premise had potential, and the movie has a veneer of being a serious thriller.  I cannot imagine what possessed Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo to be a part of this absurdly over the top, bloodlust mess.

There are a few critics who have observed that Prisoners screams: “Nominate me for an Oscar!”  If the academy actually goes for this (and I hope they don’t), hopefully Deakins will be recognized.  His work is the only thing in the movie that warrants mention.

Content Advisory: Many intense graphic depictions of torture, themes of child abduction and abuse, disturbing images, drug use, and some harsh language.                       MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: D

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