Daniel Craig

Knives Out

25/11/19

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit for our times. Although reliant on the tropes and clichés of the murder-mystery, the delivery makes this a thoroughly modern thriller.

The cast is stellar. Christopher Plummer is Harlem Thrombey: a successful eighty-five-year-old novelist with a penchant for games and a vast fortune to bequeath. The morning after his birthday party, he is found dead, his throat cut in an apparent suicide. But just as the police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Began) are ready to finalise the cause of death, enigmatic private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) turns up, hired by an anonymous client to investigate further.

Thrombey’s children and grandchildren are all present, and it turns out each of them has a motive for his murder – although I won’t reveal the details here. His daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a forbidding businesswoman, visiting with her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), and their feckless son, Ransom (Chris Evans). Thrombey’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), is a gentle soul, but a hopeless case, incapable of making it on his own. He has a wife too (Riki Lindome), and an alt-right-leaning teenager (Jaeden Martell), who spends his time perusing questionable websites on his phone. And finally, there’s Thrombey’s yoga-and-crystal-loving daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), and her student daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford).

As you might expect of the genre, the setting is a remote country house, and so – of course – there are staff too: housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), both of whom prove central to the plot.

There’s an appealing playfulness here, with zingy dialogue and witty repartee, and the performances are as sprightly and assured as you’d expect from these marvellous actors. But the plot is a little predictable: there are no real surprises here, mainly because the various ‘twists’ are too heavily signalled. The middle third sags under the weight of a lengthy red herring, where the focus drifts from the larger-than-life characters and their shenanigans, following instead a more muted, less engaging thread.

Nonetheless, this is a lively and eminently watchable film – just not the masterpiece I hoped that it would be.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Logan Lucky

07/09/17

It’s four years since Steven Soderbergh made the shock announcement that he was retiring from filmmaking. Mind you, he hasn’t exactly been putting his feet up with a cup of cocoa. There’s the little matter of directing two seasons of medical TV show, The Knick (under an alias) and his involvement in the upcoming project Mosaic (of which I know very little, other than it’s a ‘branching narrative’) So there’s the distinct impression that he may have returned to the big screen with Logan Lucky for a quieter life.

In a way, he’s returning to familiar territory, as this is a heist movie, a path he’s already worn fairly smooth. But put aside all thoughts of the slick, ultra cool Oceans 11. As one character observes in Rebecca Blunt’s caustic script, this is more like Oceans 7/11 – a tattered, down-at-heel story set in West Virginia. (John Denver on the soundtrack? Naturally.)

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his luck former sports star, who loses his job as a bulldozer driver because of an old injury which has left him with a permanent limp. Divorced from his wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) and with a precocious young daughter to care for, he comes up with a desperate scheme to make money, one that he shares with his taciturn one-armed war veteran brother, Clyde (Adam Driver). The two of them will rob the Coca Cola 600 Race in Charlotte, Virginia, a massive sporting event that generates millions of dollars. Clyde decides that he’s ‘in’ but, to carry out the robbery, the brothers will need to enlist the services of infamous explosives expert, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, as you have never seen him before). Only problem is, Joe is already doing time for other misdemeanours, so the brothers will need to break him out of jail, do the heist and get him back inside without his presence being missed. Complicated? You bet. Impossible? Well, it’s going to take some planning and, of course, this is exactly the kind of premise that Soderbergh loves to play with.

There’s plenty here to enjoy. Tatum and Driver work well together, even if they are the most unlikely film siblings since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Riley Keough puts in an appealing performance  as Jimmy’s resourceful sister, Mellie, and both Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are brilliant as Joe’s dumb-and-dumber brothers, Fish and Sam, who Joe insists must be brought on board to help expedite the robbery. And Craig really does have a whale of a time as the outlandish explosives expert, addicted to eating hard boiled eggs and able to create explosives from the most innocuous ingredients. Gummy Bears? Who knew?

But not everything in the mix is perfect. I could have done without Seth MacFarlane’s oafish Max Chilblane, sporting an English accent that’s almost as bad as the one employed by Don Cheadle in the Oceans movies. Hilary Swank is mostly wasted in the role of a ruthless investigator trying to nail the perpetrators of ‘the Hillbilly Heist’, given little to do but stand around and glower at people and, in my opinion – at just under two hours – the film is about thirty minutes too long. A leaner, meaner narrative would have helped no end here, but perhaps I’m quibbling. This is a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema and there’s no doubt that Soderbergh has returned to the movie business with a palpable hit.

What next for him, I wonder? Another ‘retirement?’ More TV? And that branching narrative he keeps mentioning? We’ll just have to wait and see.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

SPECTRE

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08/11/15

The James Bond movies seem to have settled into a regular pattern – a decent outing alternating with a not so decent one. I’ve been following the films since Dr No and was initially delighted with Daniel Craig’s efforts. Casino Royale delivered a much needed kick up the franchise, even if most of its chops were nicked from The Bourne Identity. Craig seemed to cleave closer to Ian Fleming’s vision of his infamous antihero and the silly gimmicks were kept to a minimum. Quantum of Solace felt like a decidedly patchy follow-up, which never really built up a head of steam. Skyfall of course, kicked things clear out of the stadium, becoming the most successful Bond film of all time, which leaves returning director Sam Mendes only one direction in which to take things. Down.

In the latest outing, Bond is (once again) looking like he’s all washed up. He’s gone out on his own in search of the orchestrator of a sinister organisation and M (Ralph Fiennes) has no option but to order him to stand down. Not that it deters him at all. With the help of Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) he loads his gun and heads out after the bad guys. Before you can say implausible, he’s heading off to a variety of locations to hunt down whichever evil mastermind is behind the latest series of outrages. Meanwhile, the headquarters of MI6, bombed to destruction in Skyfall, have been replaced by a brand new super dooper high rise building, masterminded by C (Andrew Scott) who may as well have the word ‘dodgy’ tattooed on his forehead.

The film starts promisingly with a pre-credits sequence set amidst Mexico City’s El Dia De Muerte celebrations. There’s a Touch of Evil style tracking shot, some massive explosions and a helicopter-set punch up that redefines the word ‘thrilling.’ If the rest of the film was up to this standard, it would be a wonderful thing indeed. Instead, after Sam Smith’s forgettable theme song, (too shrill by half) we’re treated to some exposition, which, after that brilliant opening salvo, seems to move with all the urgency of molasses in winter. It takes quite a while for the film to recover – there’s a forgettable car chase, a punch up on a train that echoes Connery’s fight with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love, a new love interest with Gallic moody monkey Lea Seydoux and a brief snogathon with Monica Bellucchi that looks like it’s crawled straight out of the sexist 60s. Things don’t really pick up much until chief villain Oberhauzer (Cristophe Waltz) puts in a belated appearance, whereupon we’re treated to a bit of torture, (always a great way to focus the attention), followed by what ought to be the finale.

Except that it’s not. There’s another finale, which though decently executed feels like a sequence too far (and judging by the legions of audience members paying a visit to the loo, we weren’t the only ones who felt this way). SPECTRE is decent entertainment and it’s savvy enough to reference many of the earlier movies, but it’s not strong enough to take its place with the best examples of the series. Some tightening up would have helped it hit all the right targets, but as it stands, this falls into the usual pattern. ‘Bond will return’ promises a credit, but will he be Daniel Craig? Watch this space.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney