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Movie Review: Knives Out

Knives Out

A detective (played by Daniel Craig) tries to get to the bottom of a murder the deceased’s nurse (played by Ana de Armas) is under suspicion for in Knives Out.

Whodunit murder mysteries and movies used to be very popular a long time ago. Can it win crowds again? Knives Out is willing to take that risk.

This film takes the common classic styles of the ‘whodunit’ murder mysteries that used to be very common in Agatha Christie mysteries and in classic movies and television of the past. The film reminds you of that charm. It keeps you intrigued from start to finish of the whole story. The film also provides some comedic twists whether it be the main protagonist’s illness, the eccentricities of the late millionaire in his lifetime, or the characters of the family members Marta has to deal with. However the film does an excellent job in taking this classic style of thriller film to the modern world. It presents a situation in today’s world of a rich eccentric man who dies and people don’t know whether it’s a suicide or murder. To makes things even crazier, the deceased had willed everything to the nurse, leaving the family to suspect the nurse behind this all. It’s a difficult mix to do, but Johnson succeeds in delivering such a film.

One of the things I like about this film is that it’s a ‘whodunit’ film that succeeds in being comical. We all know it’s a suicide, but we are intrigues when we see Marta follow all of Harlan’s instructions so that she’s not framed for his death, that really is a suicide. It presents a bizarre situation where one wonders if Marta really does deserve all the money and the house in Harlan’s will. Over time, you learn that the Thrombeys are first-class lowlives. Even the most liberal of the Thrombeys are ready to exploit Marta’s status as the daughter of an illegal immigrant to get their piece of Harlan’s will. It’s easy to see that at the very end as Ransom is arrested and the whole family watches him being taken away while Marta watches from the balcony of the mansion. By that time, you can understand why it’s Marta looking down upon the surviving Thrombeys. They’re first-class vermin!

The interesting thing about this story is that it not only mixes in the modern along with the comical, but it has something political to say too. With the exception of Great Nana, it appears all of the Thrombey including the in-laws have been spoiled because of their father’s wealth. Linda may have become wealthy on her own, but she did it on a loan from Harlan and her husband is unapologetically adulterous. There’s Walt who’s a fail and feels he has to threaten Marta outside her apartment to get anywhere. There’s Joni, the widow of his son, who embezzled Harlan’s money from her niece’s education fund. There’s Donna, who tags along with Walt and appears to speak a lot of ‘Trump talk’ about illegal immigrants. And then the grandkids. There’s Meg who appears liberal, but becomes two-faced with Marta. There’s Jacob, a masturbating incel who speaks his alt-right mind, when not obsessing over his phone. And then there’s Ransom: the most irresponsible of the bunch and the lowest of all. He’s immature and incompetent and he’s willing to commit murders and even mix up drugs for the death of his own grandfather to get Marta framed. 

Now there’s Marta. At first Marta is beloved by the family as she’s the one taking care of Harlan during his last days. She was actually the one most loyal to Harlan during his last days. Then he dies. The family becomes comforting to Marta. But when it’s learned that Marta is the one person who will get Harlan’s major inheritances, the family either turns on her, backstabs her or attempts to blackmail her. She even gets hateful racist text messages from Jacob. The family knows they can get the inheritance is they expose Marta’s mother’s immigration status or if they expose her as committing medical malpractice, which she things she has. Even if Harlan committed suicide, the toxicology results can go against her and she could lose it all through the slayer rule. It’s funny how even the most liberal of the Thrombeys let their true colors out when they’re on Marta’s case. In the end it’s the housekeeper Fran who knows the truth and it’s the detective, whom ironically was hired by Ransom to expose a possible murder, that comes to the truth about what happened. It’s funny that it took a dying housekeeper and a detective from Texas to be the ones that knew Marta’s innocence.

That sends a message that’s fit for the time right now. There may be a lot of sacking of illegal immigrants, but this sends a message about illegals who do work heard in a society full of lazy entitled white people. The daughter of an illegal is the one who was most loyal to Harlan, while money has gotten to the heads of even the most liberal of Harlan’s family. You can see why Harlan would want to will everything to Marta. Money made his family privileged and entitled lowlives, and Harlan knew it. Marta was the only one he knew that worked hard. In the end, you are convinced that Marta, and only Marta, is the one deserving of the inheritances.

The top accolades has to go to writer/director Rian Johnson. He creates a story that reminds us of the charm of the ‘whodunit’ and even remind us that it can still win people to the box office. That’s a remarkable thing especially when it became newsworthy this year of how so many Oscar contenders spent a brief time at the box office and then made its way to NetFlix. As of now, it’s already grossed over $150 million in North America.  It takes the ‘whodunit,’ gives it a modern twist, adds a social message and comes off entertaining. It also possesses a unique classy style about it that not even Marta’s vomiting problem can ruin the classiness of the story.

The film possesses a great ensemble of acting performances from all who were involved from major roles like Marta and Detective Blanc who carried the story the most to Great Nana and Jacob who had very little screen time, but make you like Great Nana and hate Jacob. The two biggest standouts were Daniel Craig as the detective with a Texas accent. That’s a surprise; James Bond with a Texas accent? But he succeeds in being the main protagonist that holds the story from start to finish. Also adds a unique twist to the story how a Texas detective could be the one that sides with Marta. Ana de Armas is also excellent as Marta. She starts out well as the one most troubled by the death of Harlan. Then she becomes the victim, only to end up as the one that triumphs at the end.

In terms of supporting performances, the first of the two that stood out the biggest was Christopher Plummer. He was excellent as the millionaire who appeared eccentric, but actually had a brain to know what was going on and have the heart to find Marta the only one deserving of his wealth. The other supporting standout was Chris Evans. He really makes Ransom look like someone without a single positive quality and a complete lowlife who was easy to hate. Top technical accolades go to David Crank and Jeremy Woodward for the production design, Jenny Eagan for the costume design and Nathan Johnson for the musical score.

Knives Out is a modern day whodunit murder mystery that succeeds in charming people and keeping people intrigued. It also has a surprising social message to say, if you look close enough.

Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

Sam Rockwell (centre) gives Liam James (right) more than just a summer job in The Way, Way Back.

Sam Rockwell (centre) gives Liam James (right) more than a summer job in The Way, Way Back.

If you’ve seen The Way, Way Back, I’m sure you’d feel it should be described as a ‘summer movie’ because it’s not only released in the summer but is set in the summer too. But it’s not your typical ‘summer movie’ as it doesn’t fit how we interpret the term ‘summer movie.’ Nevertheless it is worth seeing.

We meet Duncan: a socially-withdrawn 14 year-old heading to upstate New York for the summer with his mother Pam, her boyfriend Trent and his daughter Steph. Trent is quite overbearing on Duncan chastising him about his shyness which doesn’t help at all. It’s obvious Duncan is not looking forward to this trip, especially since he wants to spend time with his father. At the beach house, the family meet up with Trent’s friend, the free-spirited Betty and her family including sullen teen daughter Susanna and young son Peter who Betty often chastises about his ‘lazy eye.’ Betty wants Duncan to be a play friend for Peter but Duncan is disinterested. He’s more interested in daughter Susanna but doesn’t know how to talk to her. The place is best describes by Susanna as ‘spring break for adults.’ Over at the beach house, Trent is the life of the party especially to his long-time friends Betty, Kip and Joan. That makes Duncan feel even more alone.

One day Duncan goes biking to the town on Steph’s girlie bike from years ago. He notices a waterslide park: The Water Wizz. Over there he meets the middle-aged man whom one day earlier was playing PacMan at the gas stop and wanted Duncan to keep up the high score. His name is Owen, a carefree easy-going personality, and he runs the Water Wizz. Here he shows Duncan about the Water Wizz with the employees and doing business, teaching him the ‘legend’ of the park, and even introducing a trio of boys he befriends. He also gets Roddy to show him how he sets up the female sliders to slide.

The experience gets Duncan coming back to the Water Wizz day after day and he even gets a job there. First duty was to stop a breakdancer from stealing the crowd. The breakdancer agrees as long as Duncan shows his stuff. Duncan agrees and he would be known at ‘Pop-N-Lock.’ Soon he learns from Owen that one doesn’t just simply work at the Water Wizz but the workers all share a common bond with each other. Meanwhile people back at the resort are wondering about Duncan and why he’s gone biking off so often, including Susanna who’s slowly developing an interest in him. Susanna actually follows Duncan one day, determined to find out what he’s up to. There she’s introduced to the Water Wizz and the two have fun together including Duncan teaching her the ‘legend’ of the park.

However while things are getting better for Duncan at the Water Wizz, things are getting worse for him and his family at the beach house. Trent and Betty are too carefree in their partying and Kip is oblivious to the whole thing. Meanwhile Trent is undecided about rekindling romantic interests with Joan who wants him back. Little do they know Duncan saw the whole thing. It’s at a resort party Trent is hosting at the house where Duncan impulsively blurts out to Trent that he knows what’s going on right for all to hear. The party’s over for the family. It gets to the point they all can’t have a normal dinner together or play a game on a rainy day without some friction. It bears hardest not only on Duncan but on Pam too as she knows the relationship will be over.

Duncan however finds someone to lean on in Owen. Owen reminds him Trent doesn’t know Duncan and how great of a kid he is and it’s more of Trent’s problem. He even offers to cheer him up by inviting him to Lewis’ good-bye party. Duncan comes with Peter and they all not only have a good time but Peter develops a new confidence about his lazy eye. Unfortunately the situation between Pam and Trent has gotten to the point that the ‘family’ has to leave the beach house and return home. This especially shocks Duncan since the people of the Water Wizz make him feel like a somebody although his job is still a secret to his ‘family.’ Yes, it is a goodbye to the town but not without one last ‘moment’ with Susanna and a golden last-hurrah at the Water Wizz that you will have to see for yourself.

The film’s movie poster advertises coming from the studio that brought out Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. The movie does kind of have the same feel as the two previous movies. Unlike the previous two, this film doesn’t seem to have much of a theme or a message to it. But like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, it shows adults to be the messy ones or the ones who don’t have their head on straight. Also like those two movies, it shows that sometimes the kids or teens are the ones who deal with the situation best despite their own flaws. You could tell with the stupidities of Betty getting drunk constantly and Trent’s cheating that these adults don’t have their head on right. Even the adults’ treatment of the children like Betty getting on Peter’s case about his lazy eye and Trent’s judgment and belittling of Duncan are examples of their stupidity. While Duncan may be sky and Susanna may be unhappy, they’re the ones that actually end up being the smarter ones in the end. Another unique thing about the film is that it showed the career-oriented adults to be the ones playing games and doing stupid things that hurt those that matter most to them while the workers at the Water Wizz are the ones that most have it together. Duncan should be fortunate to have bumped into the park by chance. It was the best thing for him.

This is yet another coming-of-age story but it’s not yet another. Sure the coming-of-age story has been done at great frequency and some would say this story isn’t all that original. What makes this coming-of-age story work is through the character of Duncan. Everyone who’s been through the high school years knows a teen boy that is very quiet and is an anti-social loner. Duncan carries those traits in a comical way without poking too much fun at shy teen boys. But what’s also unique about Duncan is that he makes his anger and frustrations present. The film succeeds in getting us to feel for Duncan and wanting him to find his place despite Trent’s overbearingness. We first think of Owen and the gang at the Water Wizz as overgrown idiots who should get a real job but we soon see them as the friends Duncan needed during his vacation. That’s the movie’s appeal: the young protagonist and the people that change his life.

Without a doubt, young Canadian actor Liam James was the star of the film. He did an excellent job in portraying a shy anti-social boy very well both emotionally and physically. Great to see a young actor like him do an excellent lead amongst an ensemble cast of established actors. Steve Carell was also good playing a person you just wanted to hate. Toni Collette didn’t have that showy of a role but she played it very honestly and added to the story. Sam Rockwell was great in playing a free-spirited middle-aged man. Great character acting also came from Alison Janney and Rob Corddry. AnnaSophia Robb was also very good in playing a young teen girl. Very different from the ‘sweet’ roles she’s been known to play. Also fun to see the writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash in roles in this film. Nat and Jim were writers who teamed up with Alexander Payne for The Descendants. This movie is a great way to show they can hold their own and hold it well. The movie also included a great mix of music both past and current.

Overall The Way, Way Back is a great summer film if you want to get away from your typical summer movie fare. This is a story you’ll really enjoy. Also movie fans should go see it if they want to get off the beaten path.