Toni Collette

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

 

Velvet Buzzsaw

08/02/19

On paper, it all looks very promising.

In 2014, writer/director Dan Gilroy gave us Nightcrawler, a brilliant movie with arguably career-best performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Velvet Buzzsaw, set in the LA art world, must surely be an opportunity to pull off a similar trick, making us care about essentially unlikable people… mustn’t it? Unfortunately, the characters who inhabit this movie are such an appalling collection of poseurs that it’s hard not to cheer when awful things happen to them. Which is only the first of its problems.

Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, an influential art critic. One word from this man and an aspiring artist can kiss goodbye to his career (Hmm. I wonder what it’s like to have that kind of influence?). Morf has a bit of a thing for Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works as an assistant to hard-nosed art dealer, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Josephina has lately been struggling in her career but an unexpected opportunity arises when reclusive artist Vetril Dease drops dead at an art launch and she chances upon a massive haul of his paintings hidden in his apartment. Despite the fact that Dease left strict instructions that his work should be destroyed in the event of  his death, Josephina steals his pictures and, with the help of Vandewalt and Haze, sets about selling them to the highest bidders. But Dease was a troubled soul and his paintings have taken on certain aspects of his personality – probably because he used bits of his own body tissue when mixing his paints.

To be fair to Gilroy, he sets out his stall expertly, skewering the world of contemporary art and pointing out that, in this day and age, it is inextricably bound up with commerce. In this film, people cannot mention an artist without pointing out how much his or her work is currently selling for. But having created this world, Gilroy seems to have nowhere interesting to take his characters, except along an extremely well worn path of bumping them off in increasingly unpleasant circumstances. Which would be all right, if it weren’t for the fact that this is supposedly a horror movie and it fails comprehensively to generate any sense of terror. More damning is its predictability. The demise of rival art dealer Gretchen (Toni Collette) is so clumsily signalled, you know what’s going to happen to her well before she does.

And then there’s the little matter of the film’s own internal logic. Many of the deaths here  really don’t make sense in terms of the premise that has already been established. That catchy title by the way, refers to Rhodora Haze’s previous incarnation as a member of a punk band of the same name. It also leads to one of the film’s most tenuous plot twists.

This Netflix Original has certainly divided opinion. I’ve heard a lot of people decrying it and just a few speaking up in its defence, but I have to say I’m with the naysayers. This is, frankly,  a massive disappointment.

Interested parties can find our review of Nightcrawler here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2014/11/03/nightcrawler/

2.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Hereditary

14/06/18

The advance buzz about this film has been powerful. There have been comparisons to The Exorcist – the movie that in 1973, caused me to write my first ever film review, a habit that has continued unbroken ever since. In its central theme, however,  Hereditary is much closer to another classic, Rosemary’s Baby, but – while it certainly has much to recommend it – it’s not really in the same league as either of those other horror milestones; moreover, it’s fatally compromised by an ending that’s so risible, it actually causes audience laughter in the screening I attend.

After the death of her estranged and secretive mother, Annie (Toni Collette), an artist who specialises in recreating scenes from her life in miniature, starts to unravel a series of clues from the odds and ends her mother left behind. Her 13 year old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), has clearly been powerfully affected by her grandmother’s death, behaving in a strange and very disconcerting manner, while her older brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), is more interested in the popular teenage pursuits of getting stoned and laid. Annie’s accommodating husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), just tries to keep everything rubbing along as best he can. But when Peter is a key player in a tragic and accidental death, something evil seems to settle around the house like a shroud, exerting an increasingly powerful grip…

The first thing to say about Hereditary is that first time writer/director Ari Aster has forged a powerful and highly effective debut. Eschewing the fast-paced jump cuts of many contemporary horror films, this is a real slow burner, a simmering pressure cooker that only gradually comes to the boil and manages to instil in the viewer an overpowering sense of creeping horror. The cinematography eerily manages to mix Annie’s doll’s house imagery with the actual interiors from the rambling, family home, while Toni Collette puts in an extraordinarily accomplished performance in the lead role, managing to convince us that she is genuinely terrified.

But then there’s that awful ending, which – to my mind at least – manages to destroy all the accomplishments that have gone before. And while I appreciate there’s a necessity to tie up the loose ends of the plot, it helps if that plot makes some kind of narrative sense. It must be said that other reviewers seem to have had no problem with this, so perhaps I’m just difficult to please – but trust me, the audience reaction on the evening I view this is pretty unequivocal. However, in an attempt to ensure fairness, I’ve decided to star-rate this film rather differently from our other reviews.

(Most of the film) 4.4 stars

(Last 10 minutes) 1 star

Philip Caveney