KNIVES OUT – A MURDER ANTI-MYSTERY WITH A SHARP-WITTED PLOT AND RAZOR-EDGED HUMOR

SHORT TAKE:

Clever, witty, well acted, anti-mystery which will keep you guessing to the end.

 

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up for: profane and blasphemous language, unscrupulous behavior, and some violence and a few disturbing images.

LONG TAKE:

First off I have to be careful what I say. I don’t want to spoil any of this cleverly written murder anti-mystery.

If you are familiar with the old Columbo TV series you’ll know what I mean by anti-mystery. The anti-mystery is a plot format whereby the “mystery” is revealed in the first act. You know what is done, how and by whom, and in the classic charming Peter Falk vehicle the fun is in watching Detective Columbo as he “bumbles” around waiting for the killer to underestimate the savvy investigator and let his guard down.

Knives Out is similarly structured. Act I of Knives Out reveals a great deal in the first 20 minutes, leaving the consequences for the remainder of the movie. But despite starting at the “end” the plot is so clever that there were still a lot of legitimate surprises in store – none from left field and all earned.

The title is a “sharp”-witted, double edged – uh – sword, referring not just to murder weapons but the emotional knee jerk reactions of the family members to each other not just as events unfold but in their “normal” every day relationships to each other.

A truly star studded film written and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out will keep you guessing.

Daniel Craig definitely missed his calling. He made his name as James Bond beginning with Casino Royale in 2006, but his flare is for more humorous characters. His southern private detective, Benoit Blanc, is not a caricature but amusing in his juxtaposition amongst the New England snobby crazy rich Thrombey family. His timing is precise and his occasional quirks executed with style but without being distracting.Christopher Plummer is a veteran actor of both theatre and film whose career spans 6 decades – including such varied stories as The Sound of Music, The Man Who Would be King, Oedipus the King, 12 Monkeys, Waterloo, A Beautiful Mind, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, The Man Who Invented Christmas and made recent cinematic news by stepping up to replace Kevin Spacey in All The Money in the World when Spacey was excised in shame from the cast of that movie. Plummer has portrayed Kipling, Oedipus, Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes, a Klingon general, Santa Claus, Julius Caesar, Tolstoy, John Barrymore, King Herod and J. Paul Getty. Here, in Knives Out, Plummer portrays patriarch Harlan Thrombey. Wealthy, successful murder mystery (what else) novelist, he is found with his throat slit on the day after his 85th birthday party. (FYI Plummer was actually 88 during filming.) Suicide or murder? Police Detectives Elliott and Wagner (LaKeith Stanfield from Get Out and Noah Segan from Looper) work with Blanc to find out.

In life Harlan had been saddled with a crew of weak and dependent relatives. Chris Evans, in an obvious distancing from his Captain America persona, is Ransom, the obnoxious entitled grandson. (Halloween Scream Queen) Jamie Lee Curtis is cold and stiff Linda, Harlan’s eldest. Don Johnson (Miami Vice – the original, who made the five o’clock shadow a facial fashion statement) is Richard her socially clueless husband. Michael Shannon (12 Strong – SEE MY REVIEW HERE) is Walt, Harlan’s son and publishing employee who has otherwise never held a job in his life. Riki Lindhome (The Big Bang Theory) is Walt’s hanger-on wife. Toni Collette (Sixth Sense, and lots of other horror movies specializing in emotionally very unhealthy families) is aged hippie Joni, Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law. Katherine Langford plays dependent, professional college student Meg, Harlan’s granddaughter. Jaeden Martell (It and St. Vincent) is Jacob, Harlan’s reclusive internet-addicted grandson. All are a bit like zoo animals, both confined and supported by a keeper until they can not function in the outside world.

Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming Bond movie with Daniels, No Time to Die, in 2020) plays Marta, Harlan’s private nurse, through whose eyes much of the action is witnessed and whose very peculiar behavioral McGuffin provides a helpful plot anchor.

The cinematography by Steve Hedlin (San Andreas and Looper) takes advantage of cloudy days and dark passages to enhance the mood and theme of confusion – to make you doubt what you think you might know. He also does not shy from taking harsh advantage of close shots that put characters in “lights” most reflective of their personalities.

The theme music by Nathan Johnson is a very classy dissonant original string quartet and the rest of the soundtrack has the familiar richness of a symphonic poem.

The acting is wonderful: part caricature Clue characters part Agatha Christie – a fine ensemble group of players who walk that fine line effortlessly between realistic portrayals of dysfunctional people and outright hamminess. These are people you love to truly dislike but can’t wait to see what they do next. And Knives Out will keep you guessing to the tip end.

THE SHAPE OF WATER – OFFENSIVE ON SOOOO MANY LEVELS

 

SHORT TAKE:

An attempt to "update" The Little Mermaid which is buried in an agenda filled script.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Don't bother.

LONG TAKE:

Rhett Butler, in Gone With the Wind, while talking to Scarlett O’Hara after the death lists are handed out says: “I'm angry. Waste always makes me angry. And that's what all this is, sheer waste.”

And that about sums up my opinion on The Shape of Water. This movie is offensive on so many levels. There was a great idea in there but the film makers were so bent on foisting an agenda upon the audence that they lost track of it.

The premise is clever. It’s the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid turned on its head. When a “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and a mute cleaning lady named Elisa,  (Sally Hawkins from Paddington Bear), fall in love, she and her friends endeavor to set him free from the facility in which he is being held.

Sounds a bit like Splash but with the genders reversed. But that’s where the similarities end. This is a humorless, angry diatribe against the human race in general and men in particular.

To start with, the only males in the movie who have any redeeming features are Elisa’s homosexual neighbor Giles, (Richard Jenkins – Jack Reacher and White House Down) and Dimitri, (Michael Stuhlbarg – A Simple Man and Dr. Strange), a Russian spy who decides to defy his own country to help Elisa – two men who are outcasts of the society in which they live.

All the other men are evil characters. Elisa’s only other friend is her co-worker, Zelda, (Octavia Spencer). Zelda’s husband, Brewster, (Martin Roach) is a lazy, unappreciative burden, does not protect his wife and betrays her at a crucial moment. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon – 12 Strong), the scientist who captured the creature from South America is sadistic, domestically abusive, carelessly bigoted and a sexual harrasser who rots – literally – before our very eyes. Even the counterboy, not so much as given a name except for the “Pie Guy,” at the local shop is portrayed as gratuitously evil. A scene in which he gives a startled but gentle rebuff to Giles’ sudden, unexpected and unencouraged sexual advances is immediately linked to an overtly bigoted action towards a black couple who enter his diner – as though to imply if you are heterosexual you must be a bigot. Well, frankly, to my way of thinking this shows the screenwriters, Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor are both bigoted and racist – to men in general, to heterosexuals in particular and especially, but not exclusicvely, to those who are not minorities.

Minorities are not treated respectfully eiher. Zelda is a caricature of an uneducated black woman who indulges and allows herself to be taken for granted by a husband who will not even defend her when she is threatened.

Giles is also a caricature – an ineffectual, alcoholic unemployable elderly gay artist who yearns for young men and youth, pitiful and cowardly unless led by a strong woman’s presence.

The military is portrayed as heartlessly and unnecessarily cruel, disposing of people like used socks and planning to vivisect a one of a kind creature with abilities and physical attributes that can only be exploited if it is alive. This latter is especially stupid and demonstrates the knee-jerk distain and prejudiced hatred del Toro and Taylor must have for an organization which helps protect our country. I could have understood a plot which wanted to use the creature, to perhaps even put it at risk in order to duplicate its abilities – but to simply and randomly kill it to see what is inside is a juvenile finger in the face to any kind of authority figure and exposes del Toro's —isms which prevent him from writing a good script.

But of course the women are courageous movers and shakers. Zelda, for all her weakness with her husband, is a stalwart companion to Elisa. And Elisa marshalls help from her friends in a daring rescue of the sentient creature who she then hides and has an affair with in her bathtub at home. If this sounds ridiculous and somewhat grotesque – it is.

And if you take any kind of objective look it is hard to determine who is the more evil – Strickland or Elisa. Elisa is a woman who feels isolated – mute from birth, no family, abandoned by a river with gill-shaped scars on her throat, who has a — thing — for her bath water.

After making contact with the creature Elisa goes to Giles to DEMAND – not ask or entreat – his help. She explains that she wants the creature because SHE is lonely, because SHE needs him, and because the creature is alone LIKE her. She does not say she wants to rescue him because he is a sentient creature about to be needlessly killed; not because he is perhaps the last of his kind – both of which would have been far nobler arguments. And, BTW, the only one who does consider these two more valid points is Dimitri the Russian spy.

Her friends must put themselves at risk because SHE wants the creature – leaving aside the answer to the question of what she would do if she fell out of infatuation with him – bring him back to the lab or leave him on the side of the road like an unwanted puppy?

So she coerces Giles into helping him, either not considering or not caring that he could get shot (which he almost does) or put in federal penitentiary for what they are about to do. She then, during the course of this ill-conceived adventure, forces Zelda to help her too. And had Dimitri not popped up and risked his own life to help them the misadventure WOULD have ended up with them all dead or in jail. Never mind the feds would, realistically, have had enough evidence to be on their tail within days – finger prints, the random witness. Instead these same agency members are now portrayed as not only evil but bumbling and come to the conclusion the creature was snatched by 10 specially trained Russian forces instead of two cleaning ladies and a sympathetic scientist. Meanwhile, the security guard who got a good look at Giles and was injected by Dimitri is an ignored casualty. The guard's murder is shrugged off by our "heroes" and Elisa gives it no thought even though it was her fault.

Once in her apartment she puts Giles at further risk by asking him to babysit the creature, who proceeds to eat one of his cats and gash his arm. Even Elisa doesn’t object when Giles forgives the creature on the grounds it is a “wild thing” and doesn’t understand what it did. So they KNOW it is an animal – a sentient one perhaps on the intelligence level of  dolphin, but an animal. Nonetheless, Elisa continues to care for it and eventually uses it as a — tub toy, filling her entire bathroom up to the ceiling with water. This foolish action puts the movie theater above which she lives at serious threat of collapsing. Water drips into the owner’s struggling movie house and shoos away the patrons, and floods the upstairs portion of the building, likely doing serious damage to the business of the owner, a man who has been nothing but kind to her.

At the end when she and the creature escape she leaves her friends behind to explain to police and federal authorities about three dead men – the guard, Strickland, and Dimitri, as well as a conspiratorial break-in and theft of a highly valuable animal. Zelda and Giles will probably go to jail. Thanks Elisa.

Additionally there is gratuitous sexuality and nudity, plus demonstrations of sadistic violence and cruelty especially towards the captive creature. They even take a random stab at blasphemy by declaring the creature a “god” because of his healing powers.

In a horrifying lapse of judgement, for even the jaded and agenda-driven Oscar voters, this is one of the best picture nominees.

To paraphrase a joke about the assassination at Ford’s Theatre – "So, aside from the bigotry, bestiality, blasphemy, brutality, buck nakedness and… misanthrope (an almost completely alliterative list) Mrs. Lincoln, how was the movie?"

To which she could quote Rhett: "sheer waste".