Knives Out: a twisty, hilarious tale from Rian Johnson

After getting lambasted by angry man-babies for his attempt to do something very slightly different with Star Wars, you could forgive writer-director Rian Johnson if he decided he wanted to retreat to the hills never to make a movie again. However, the best thing you can do, with most setbacks in life, is to get back out there.

And boy, he did. For Knives Out is a triumph and, for me, one of the best films of the year.

It perhaps helps that we’ve had a lot of blockbuster and superhero films of late. So with Johnson’s film being in the mould of a classic whodunnit, it’s probably a welcome change of pace for a lot of movie fans. A palate cleanser at the end of the year? Maybe. Whatever it is, it’s a great story. Rumour is he came up with the idea for the film shortly after finishing Brick in 2005, so it’s been a long time coming. I am glad he’s finally been able to bring it to the screen.

From the first few minutes you can tell this is going to be a fun ride. The dialogue is sharp and peppery, the editing and direction slick and assured, and the performances on point.

The film opens with the death of the patriarch of a large family, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and the family being called in for questioning. So we get to meet them one by one: the daughters – eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and free spirit Joni (Toni Collette), underachieving son Walt (Michael Shannon) and shady son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson).

From the first few minutes you can tell this is going to be a fun ride. The dialogue is sharp and peppery, the editing and direction slick and assured, and the performances on point. Indeed, it’s one of those films where you can tell the cast all upped their game, knowing they were making something special.

Lurking in the background of these opening exchanges is master detective, Benoit Blanc (played with a sublime southern accent and real gusto by Daniel Craig. Probably relishing the chance to lean into the sort of role he rarely gets to play). Slowly, he gets more involved, taking over the questioning from the police and unsettling the family.

In some ways he acts as antagonist, of sorts, trying to get to the truth of Harlan’s murder whilst keeping Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) close – for the story is primarily told from her point of view. She seems distraught at Harlan’s death but is clearly hiding something. But then so is everyone. In classic whodunit style most of the family have a credible reason as to why they might want to kill the old man.

The trick, these days, is to try and keep the audience guessing, but not to confuse them trying to be too clever with the plot. I’d say that Johnson does this in a remarkably accomplished way, getting the balance spot on. It all goes up a notch when bad apple son Hugh (Chris Evans) turns up. After Captain America you can see the joy Evans has in playing a bit of a bastard.

It’s also worth mentioning Ana de Armas. As our protagonist she is really holding the whole thing together. I’d only really seen her in a small part in Blade Runner: 2049, so it was nice to see what she could do in a more complex role – and she does well.

Johnson has apparently said in an interview that he’d be open to doing a sequel, following Benoit Blanc around as he solves other murders. I am torn on this as sometimes it’s better to let things lie and not end up watering down the impact you had striking gold first time round.

Whatever he ends up doing, Knives Out remains one of Johnson’s best pieces of work, adding another string to his bow as a filmmaker (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and makes me excited to see what he does next.

Blade Runner 2049: an idiot’s review

I’ll put this out there from the off. Only a complete numpty would go to see Blade Runner 2049 with just a vague memory of the original, but that’s what I did. The reason being is because, shock horror, I’ve never been a die-hard fan of the original and wanted a fairly untainted experience of the sequel.

Now I imagine this statement may cause many a film fan to start sharpening up their unlimited cinema passes in an effort to stab me in a rage, but it is what it is. Some films just didn’t grab me growing up, so I didn’t revisit them. Despite this one being a cult classic, revered by many.

So I’m almost – almost – coming at this sequel as a newbie. I mean, I’m aware of Deckard and replicants and how the 1982 original was loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do androids dream of electric sheep? But anyway, enough apologising, let’s talk 2049 and my impressions of the film.

So the story starts with words on screen, bringing us up to speed. We learn that the evil Tyrell corporation who built the original replicants is now no more, having been replaced by the super evil Wallace corporation, headed up by nefarious-bloke-with-a-God-complex, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto on fine, sinister form).

Also, Blade Runners still exist and are tasked with hunting down old models and ‘retiring’ them. So in a tense exchange in the opening scene we meet Officer K (Ryan Gosling), attempting to bring in Dave Bautista’s protein farmer; in a scene reminiscent of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. Everything looks gorgeous and stylish and the tension is palpable, up to the point it explodes into action.

Which is very much how the film goes. Slow burn, intense and loaded with meaning and symbolism. It is almost style over substance, but Villeneuve treads that path well, just about keeping the balance between the two.

So after his encounter with the farmer, Officer K finds a clue which leads him to believe replicants are changing in a way that could have a significant impact on society. This leads him to search for Deckard (Harrison Ford).

And, to geek out and digress for second, typing this got me thinking the film could’ve been called Blade Runner: The Search for Deckard, but I guess Star Trek already took that. Shame though, had a nice ring to it.

Back with 2049, other than the details above, the plot is best avoided for fear of spoilers.

But what I will say is that, returning to my point about being a bit of a newbie, this film did world build (for the uninitiated) extremely well. As director Denis Villeneuve – in an impressive balancing act – managed to stay true to the look and feel of Scott’s original, but also put his own stamp on it.

For example, we get a look at the world outside of L.A., all hazy red and yellow mists, complete with abandoned cityscapes and giant statues, which speak of ancient, long-lost civilisations. Post-apocalyptic and then some. Set design must have had a field day, in a good sense, for this all adds to Scott’s world in a way that feels credible.

Villeneuve also builds on other concepts touched on in the original, such as the debate around what it means to be human. Here, Officer K has a companion, Joi (Ana de Armas) a hologram.

And whilst she may have started as a basic, out of the box programme, she’s sentient and has grown and evolved to the point where you get the sense they’ve shared many moments together and have an intimate connection. Inasmuch as is allowed for Officer K, who is not supposed to show – or succumb to – signs of emotion or humanity, and is subject to regular ‘baseline tests’ by his employers.

Moreover, the more time we spend with Joi and K, the more we come to understand him through how he interacts with her. He keeps his emotions in check for the most part, but is conflicted. Desperately trying to do his job, yet his need to discover his origins and come to terms with his latent humanity gnaws at him, and is brought home every time he lets his guard down and allows himself a taste of humanity with Joi.

It’s deeply sad, in a way. K longs for a human connection and to discover his place in the world, but cannot find it. In some ways, there’s a lot of DNA this film shares with Spike Jonze’s Her. And perhaps shades of Lost in Translation.

Fans of the original will probably feel validated too, given how the film is held in such high regard, this sequel has done a commendable job of ‘not messing it all up’. Gosling is a great fit for the lead and it’s really grounds the film and story when Ford shows up too. Armas, a relative up-and-comer, also puts in a fine performance as Joi.

Come awards season it would be a travesty if Deakins didnt get an Oscar for the cinematography on this one – as the majority of shots are pieces of art in their own right. Villeneuve, too, could be in for an award or two, building on his critical acclaim following Arrival.

For me, I was less enamoured with the film than some people (being an idiot newbie and all that) and felt it dragged in places, largely due to its 2 hour 44 minute running time and methodical pace of storytelling. But I appreciated the performances, questions it raised, way it was shot and, crucially, the type of film it was trying to be.

In the age of superhero films and blockbusters and godawful comedy remakes, this sort of cinema is neccessary and vital, but not to everyone’s tastes. So whether you’re a fan of the original or not, I urge you to give it a try, and go in with an open mind, pay attention and let the experience wash over you.

(I said much the same of mother! recently, but the point stands for this too.)