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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.

Summer Movie Summary: Superhero Movies

If there is one genre of movie that stands out during the summer movie season, it’s the superhero movies. Every year they win crowds and give them their enjoyment for the most part. For this summary, I will review two such movies: Captain America: Civil War and The Suicide Squad. Both are two different types of superhero movies in the way the people try to be heroes and with the comic franchises: Marvel vs. DC once again.

Captain America: Civil War

captain-americaWhile DC Comics has the two biggest superheroes, Marvel’s edge is its multitude of different superheroes: take your pick. This time around in Captain America: Civil War, the focus is on Captain America. Or is it?

Watching the film, I was expecting it to be a story about Captain America. You can imagine my surprise to see all the other Avengers characters. I was cool with it at first. However things started getting uncomfortable for me when I saw them take up so much screen time. They all took up so much time, I even questioned whether Captain America was even the lead role in the film. I even thought if it was to have one hero as the lead role, it should probably be Iron Man.

Nevertheless the film does have a lot of excellent qualities. The first is a story that is thought-provoking. There’s a situation where international rules are imposed on the Avengers. Right when an incident happens, it causes friction within the team and even division. The question remains of what is the right thing to do? The movie attempts to give you the answer. Virtues and morals are an uncompromisable ingredient in superhero movies no matter how much action is involved. Even top directors will say that the values of humanity are necessary for a winning superhero movie. Here we have a movie that gets one questioning what is the right thing to do considering the situation. That adds to the film as it gets the audience thinking.

Of course high-tech special effects and action battles are a must in superhero movies. The crowds come to get blown away. Captain America: Civil War delivers on such action just like most of the Marvel comic movies before it. It has moments that will leave you on the edge of your seat. In addition, it adds some comedy too as it gives us a young Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, as a preview for the new upcoming Spider-Man installment. Here Peter comes across as your typical young idiotic yuts. Gives anticipation of what to expect when Spider-Man comes out.

The Russo brothers return to direct the movie. They directed the last Captain America movie. They did a very good job of delivering another great superhero movie. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return with the Russos to write the latest installment. They did a good job despite the push of some actors to have more screen time. Of course, Robert Downey Jr. stole the movie and Chris Evans appeared to have a supporting role this time. The other actors did their parts well and didn’t appear to get into too much of the mix-up. The special effects delivered and Henry Jackson’s music added to the film.

For all intents and purposes, Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie in disguise. Don’t be fooled. However the quality of the story is maintained as it gives a thought-provoking story with the superhero action to deliver.

Suicide Squad

suicide-squadThere’s something about the knack to do an anti-hero movie. We saw that with Marvel when they released Deadpool. Now we see DC Comics making the attempt with the Suicide Squad. Do they succeed?

You’d think after Sausage Party, I’d start again on how this movie of a bad-guy superhero squad is trying to ‘bring back the 90’s’ but you’re wrong. A story where it takes bad guys and makes heroes out of them is actually a very common theme. It’s even been done in film as far back as the 1930’s as I once saw 1939’s Stagecoach take the outcasts of society and turn them into heroes. It’s a theme that has been done decade after decade. We see it done here again with the Suicide Squad. The people recruited to be part of the Squad are criminals and crazies that look like they deserved to be shunned away from society but an intelligence operative sees them as the right people for the job. They even make clear that they’re bad, not evil.

The ‘bad vs. evil’ theme is what makes this movie unique among the superhero movies of this year. Even from Deadpool. While Marvel’s Deadpool is about a selfish man who’s disinterested in being the superhero bestowed upon him, Suicide Squad is about a conscience present in even the baddest of badasses. A reminder that bad and evil are two completely different things. Don’t forget we’re dealing with a world where Superman is deceased, as exhibited in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice months earlier.

Now the Suicide Squad is not a team of badass superheroes created in vain after Deadpool: an attempt at having ‘anti-Avengers.’ It’s a team that actually debuted in DC Comics in 1959 in their monthly Brave And The Bold series and made a return in 1987 in their Legends series back then. The comic would be a monthly series that would issue for some months, end temporarily for a year or two and then make a comeback from time to time. Now seems like the right time to bring them to the screen. I must say their craziness and eccentricities were big time scene-stealers. While Deadpool mostly relied on the idiotic actions and lines from its lead characters, the characters of the Suicide Squad were more about their crazy and even eccentric personalities. That was their edge and I’m sure that’s what won the crowds to them this year. It’s no wonder it’s the 4th highest grossing movie of the summer.

This is David Ayer’s first attempt at directing and writing a superhero movie. He has a resume for writing and directing a lot of good police dramas and action movies in the past. However his experience doesn’t completely translate the best. Imperfections are easy to notice and it seems the movie does get a bit disjointed at times. Even in terms of the characters, there’s not that much depth to their roles and it often appears like the actors are trying to play characters more than acting out roles. I’ve noticed that DC Comics movies this year are lacking in terms of writing. It’s noticeable in Batman vs. Superman too.

Nevertheless the actors do deliver on character acting and that’s one quality I feel made the movie. In addition the actors succeeded in making characters you want to hate at first and then surprise you as they become heroes and then return as bad guys. Margot Robbie was the standout as Harley Quinn. Her character was the one that knew how to grab your attention, even upstaging Will Smith.  Others standouts include Jared Leto as the Joker, Jay Hernandez as El Diablo and  Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang. Visual effects were top notch and loaded with bright color that’s eye catching and very rare to see in most other movies, especially superhero movies. The mix of music was also an added quality. It seems like after Guardians Of The Galaxy, filmmakers are playing around and even experimenting with use of songs in the movies. Here they mix in music spanning five decades and it produces an entertainingly winning result.

Suicide Squad may be lacking in the script and in the editing but it’s the on-fire character acting, colorful visual effects and the eclectic music track that make the movie entertaining and a winner for the summer.

Sure, I only have two superhero movies in my summary of the genre but both do shed some light on the presence of the superhero movies of the summer and why they continue to win us over. They have spectacular action but they also test our conscience as well. I saw that in Batman vs. Superman earlier in the role of a superhero even after they cause destruction to do good. I see it again in Captain America as the Avengers question whether it’s right to break the law to do what’s right. I also see it in the Suicide Squad as outcasts get a shot at redemption and even remind themselves as well as others that they do possess a conscience and can even do what’s right despite their criminal minds.

Once again, the superhero genre remains one of the most winning movie genres of the summer. Even with the surprise success of Deadpool, families still come to the movies to see the good guys win. Some even like to get their ‘bad boy/bad girl’ kicks. All deliver in terms of action and a message.

VIFF 2012 Review: Hunky Dory

Minnie Driver urges her students on in Hunky Dory.

How often has a movie about a high school musical been done before? Now that Hunky Dory is out, does it add anything new or is it the same old schtick?

It’s the summer of 1976 in a small Welsh town. A young teacher, Vivienne, gets together with her drama group students to arrange to put on a play. As anticipated, it’s a Shakespeare play: The Tempest. Not as anticipated, she wants to put a twist on it by adapting the popular music of the time to it.

It’s difficult enough to arrange as it is but Vivienne and the students face other difficulties along the way. First Vivienne puts the students under a demanding rehearsal schedule that demands much of their time and in sweltering heat. Secondly the students have problems of their own: Stella is undecided between loving Davey or the boy at the disco; Evan is struggling to accept his homosexuality while he currently has a girlfriend; Kenny is pressured by his brother to join a gang of skinheads; the band face tensions of their own; and Davey, the central teen, faces the lures of Stella and Vivienne while dealing with the pressures of a broken home. Thirdly Vivienne faces a lot of dissent from many people in the school, especially Mrs. Valentine and Mr. Cafferty. She does find relief with the volunteering of the headmaster. Fourthly a fire happens and all the play’s props are burned to a crisp. The movie leads to a somewhat predictable ending but it also gives an epilogue detailing what has happened to the students since. It left me wondering “Did this really happen?” I’ve been known to question movies that are ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events.’

I’ll have to admit this is not original stuff. This is a common scenario of a music teacher putting on a new twist to a play, people in the school unhappy and even offended with it and teenage conflicts during and between rehearsals along the way. How often have we seen that before? One quality that the story has is that the problems the students went through along the way were very common and realistic to the problems teenagers go through and continue to go through today. Romantic love triangles, the pressures of joining a gang, learning of one’s homosexuality, starting a band and tensions happening along the way, those are all common teenage problems that occur decade after decade. The young cast did a very good job of making them look real and relatable.

Another thing the film did very well is remind us of the charm of 70’s music. Yes the film gave you the feel you were watching a Glee episode but seeing the young people sing and perform songs from David Bowie, Roxy Music, 10cc, ELO, The Byrds this movie brings the charm back and reminds you why those songs charmed the teens then and continue to charm today. In fact the film’s title is the title of a 1971 album by David Bowie and one of the songs from it, Life On Mars, is the first song in the film where the students are performing or rehearsing.

Minnie Driver did a good performance where she was able to display her singing skills along with her acting, but I’ve seen better overall acting from her in the past. This movie actually belonged to supporting ensemble of actors playing the teenagers in the movie. The movie was about them growing up and dealing with their own personal issues while rehearsing for the musical and they did a very good job of it. They also did a good job of acting like Welsh teens from the 70’s. The one of the teens that stood out was Aneurin Barnard as Davey, the one caught in the middle of the play, family tensions and a possible liaison with Vivienne. The only adult actor to steal the movie away from the teens had to be Robert Pugh who goes from your typical stodgy headmaster to siding with Vivienne in the end. Marc Evans is not too experienced with directing features as he is with television and documentaries but he does a good effort in this movie, if unspectacular. Scriptwriter Laurence Coriat brings in some depth in what could have been another run-of-the-mill high school musical script. The music was very good and very professional. Overall all actors did a good combined job of acting and singing.

I didn’t originally plan to see Hunky Dory that day: the Sunday before Canadian Thanksgiving. I meant to see Late Quartet but tickets for volunteers were finished and I had to wait in the Rush Line as my last chance. I did secure a ticket for Hunky Dory just in case I was out of luck. Sure enough, I was out of luck for Late Quartet. Despite missing Last Quartet, I’m quite content in seeing Hunky Dory that Sunday night.

Hunky Dory has done the film festival circuit and is due for big screen release anytime soon. IMDB shows the movie listed as released on March 2, 2012 in the UK and Ireland. Wikipedia says that it will be released by Universal Pictures in the US and 20th Century Fox around the rest of the world. This would make it the first British independent film secured by a major studio. I thought Billy Elliot was. Whatever the stats, the purchase by those two companies should boost the box office outcome of Hunky Dory in the future.

Basically Hunky Dory is not meant to take film making or music making in any new directions. It’s the same story redone and made to look different. Nevertheless its purpose it appears is to entertain the crowd and it does just that. Fans of musical movies or shows like Glee or High School Musical will like it.