Rian Johnson

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

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

15/12/17

Well, Episode VIII is suddenly upon us and everybody’s going crazy to see it, so I thought, what the heck, how bad can it be? I know I’ve gone on record as saying that Star Wars is one of the most overrated movie franchises in history, (and I genuinely believe that) but J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was pretty decent stuff, largely because it had the good sense to deliver a sort of ‘greatest hits’ package, featuring all the best bits from A New Hope. This time out, we have writer/director Rian Johnson at the controls and I have to say, rather than the exhilarating flight we had last time, this is more reminiscent of an interminable train journey, packed with passengers you neither know nor care about. Will we ever reach our destination?

Proceedings kick off (of course they do) with a great big space battle, as the tattered remnants of the resistance flee from the overwhelming might of the Empire. (Sound familiar? Get used to it.) You quickly get the sense of worse things to come when the usually reliable Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux is reduced to stamping around and leering at his underlings like a pantomime villain. Yes, there are state-of-the-arts special effects, but I feel completely unmoved by the spectacle. Shortly thereafter, we cut to a remote island where Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) that he should stop being such a moody monkey and come back to join the rebels. (You may remember this was where we left the previous film.) Luke manages to spend pretty much the entire two hours and thirty two minutes running time trying to make his mind up, though of course, we all know he’ll get there in the end…

This procrastination seems to be key to Johnson’s vision. Kylo Renn (Adam Driver) faffs around trying to decide whether he’s good or bad (when of course we all know which one it is), Rey seems, for quite a while, to be suffering from exactly the same malady and Finn (John Boyega) spends much of his time scampering around a variety of exotic locations with his new sidekick, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). The main problem is, everything feels turgid here and whenever we sense we’re approaching some kind of resolution, we discover that there’s another ending tacked on – and then another, and just for good measure, one more. The film is dedicated to ‘our Princess, Carrie Fisher,’ and perhaps the saddest thing is to see her hanging around in scene-after-scene, with very little to do but look mournful and mutter lines about ‘the Force’. (At one point, the script even has her put into suspended animation, which, I can’t help thinking, doesn’t feel entirely respectful to her memory.)

I’ve already seen a few decent reviews for The Last Jedi and no doubt, the hardcore fans will come out saying they adored it. (They generally do.) But for me, this one ranks very low down the pecking order, better than those terrible prequels, of course (though to be honest being beaten repeatedly over the head with a fresh haddock would be a step up), but limping along behind Rogue One, which at least a few fresh ideas to offer.

I can’t help feeling that the well is running pretty dry and unless somebody comes up with something very inventive soon, it may just be time to press the ‘self-destruct’ button on Star Wars.

Yeah. Like that would ever happen…

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney