Jamie Lee Curtis

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

 

Halloween

22/10/18

Talk about a daunting proposition.

‘Okay, we’re going to reboot one of the most famous horror movies of all time. We’re going to forget about the plethora of terrible sequels that have already reared their William Shatner-masked heads and we’ll bring Jamie Lee Curtis back to the role that made her famous. Oh yes, and for good measure we’ll try to ignore the fact that John Carpenter’s illustrious original is back in the cinemas, so anybody can see for themselves what made it one of the most imitated movies in cinema history.’

So, no pressure there.

The good news is that David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s resulting film isn’t anything like as terrible as what has gone before. While it rarely achieves the thrills of version one, it offers some interesting twists on those classic scenes and manages to demonstrate how the horrors that Laurie Strode underwent as the world’s most ill-fated babysitter have certainly left their mark on her. There’s also a ‘twist’ that I don’t see coming, mostly because it’s so risible, but let’s pass over that.

Forty years have (quite literally) gone by since Michael Myers’ infamous killing spree in the little town of Haddonfield. Laurie Strode (Lee Curtis) has managed to survive two failed marriages and social workers removing her daughter from her care, and now lives alone in a rambling house. She seems to have mutated into a kind of suburban Sarah Connor, multi-locking all of her doors and housing a personal armoury that would take down an approaching army. She is convinced, you see,  that one day, Michael Myers will return and when he does, she wants to be ready for him. All this adds to the strain on her relationship with her now adult daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and with her teenage granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Michael is currently locked up in a secure psychiatric unit under the ministrations of Doctor Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who, perhaps unwisely, allows a couple of British podcast makers to interview  him – but, since Michael hasn’t spoken a word since his arrest, that doesn’t make for great broadcasting material.

But then an attempt is made to move Michel to a more secure unit and… well, I don’t think it’s exactly a spoiler to say that soon enough, he’s on the loose again and is in possession of that mask and some navy blue overalls. (That’s still Nick Castle wearing the outfit, by the way.) The resulting rampage manages to generate some thrills, especially in an extended sequence where Laurie hunts Michael through a dark house but, whereas in the first film ‘The Shape’ had some sense of purpose, now he just seems to want to kill indiscriminately and the resulting higher body count serves to make us care less about each successive murder. What’s more, this is a good deal more visceral than its predecessor, which – to my mind at least – also dissipates some of the tension.

But still, there’s plenty to enjoy – if that’s the right word. Lee Curtis is terrific as a once meek woman now transformed into something much more assertive and it’s lovely to hear Carpenter revisiting his most famous score, in collaboration with his son, Cody. If nothing else, this beats all those other sequels, prequels and reboots into a cocked hat, resulting in a decent horror movie that manages not to crap all over the heritage it has been handed.

Maybe now though, we might let this franchise go and admit that nobody is ever going to measure up to what we saw in 1978.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

10/10/18

There’s no way around it. I’m getting old.

Of course, I kind of already know that but, lately, a series of cinematic arrows have been whizzing in out of the blue, as if to remind me of the fact. Apparently, it’s been twenty years since The Big Lebowski. Hell, it’s been thirty since Repo Man! And now, somehow, John Carpenter’s Halloween is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Can this be right? I mean, for God’s sake, I remember seeing it for the first time so vividly. It was back in… yep, sure enough. It was in 1978.

I saw it at the Odeon in Gants Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, my first novel had been published a year earlier, and I was just getting settled into my long and heady love affair with cinema. I’d read a review in New Musical Express that seemed to suggest that this low-budget horror movie was something worth catching up with.

Which turned out to be an understatement. Halloween blew me away.

It’s still one of most successful independent films of all time and certainly the most imitated, initiating a whole cavalcade of We-Know-What-Your-Babysitter-Did-on-Friday-the-Thirteenth pretenders, none of which have the wit or sophistication of the original, and all of which make the cardinal mistake of substituting gore for suspense. Even the eight or more sequels that came trotting gamely along in the film’s wake fail to measure up to their illustrious progenitor. (Okay, so I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Halloween 3, but only because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the source story.)

Halloween starts on October 31st 1963, when six-year-old Michael Myers takes his trick-or-treating a little too seriously and kills his sister. We cut to 1978, when Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) sees an adult Michael escape from the institution where he’s been held ever since that fateful night. Loomis heads off in hot pursuit, knowing where Michael will inevitably be headed: his home town of Haddonfield, just in time to celebrate his favourite night of the year, and where he has some unfinished business. There, young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles), are about to experience the longest and most traumatic babysitting session of their lives.

Even after all these years, the film holds up superbly (although, now transferred to digital, Dean Cundy’s gleaming Panavision widescreen shots have lost a little of their brio. What I wouldn’t give to see it projected on celluloid again!). But that’s really my only quibble. Carpenter’s no-nonsense direction is still exactly what’s needed and, if some of the tropes now seem predictable, you have to remember that in 1978, we were seeing them for the first time ever. Those voyeuristic steadicam shots along deserted streets; the perfectly timed jump-scares; the killer who seems to be dead but just won’t stop moving – oh, and of course there’s Carpenter’s wonderful soundtrack, featuring that theme tune, the same one that now, converted to a ringtone/alarm, wakes me every morning of my life. Yes, that’s how much I adore this film.

Interestingly, we’re only days away from David Gordon Green’s reboot of the same name, which is ditching all of those dodgy sequels and picking up forty years after the events of the first film. Jamie Lee Curtis is returning to the role of Laurie Strode, who has, apparently, been waiting for Michael’s return all these years. Will it be in the same league? Or even close? I seriously doubt it, but I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

For my money, Halloween may just qualify as the greatest horror movie of all time – it’s certainly in my top five. If it comes to a cinema near you, grab the opportunity to watch it again on the big screen – which, as Carpenter observes in the preceding interview, is easily the best way to see it.

Oh yes, one other thing. In 1984, I interviewed Nick Castle for his film, The Last Starfighter. In Halloween, Castle plays Michael Myers, the deadly presence behind that creepy William Shatner mask. When we said goodbye, I shook hands with the man. A thought flashed through my mind. I am shaking hands with ‘The Shape.’

Some things you never forget.

5 stars

Philip Caveney