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.

SPECTRE: Mendes does Bond’s greatest hits

Poor old Sam Mendes. In some ways he’s a victim of his own success. Skyfall broke a billion at the box office so it was a tough act to follow. Particularly if that act was yourself.

But Dan and Sam formed a superb working relationship on Skyfall, so why wouldn’t they roll the dice again? And roll they did, upping the stakes by introducing the shadowy organisation SPECTRE, helmed by the Bond franchise’s favourite go-to bad guy, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).

For SPECTRE we start in Mexico in an impressive Day of the Dead sequence which sees Bond bring his usual suave and swagger to proceedings. A solid opener.

So far so Live and Let Die.

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From there – much like the whole of the Craig era so far – the story continues to explore the path of the previous films, particularly Skyfall, with Bond and the double O programme being seen as obsolete in a modern world where drones and data reign supreme. Leading the charge is the nefarious C (Andrew Scott); giving M (Ralph Fiennes) a foil of his own. Old school versus new school you might say.

And as the story unfolds echoes of Craig’s reign as Bond keep cropping up, almost like a final send-off. Is this his last film?

And as well as the Craig era references it seemed Mendes bowed to fan pressure and brought back a number of classic tropes. You could probably play a drinking game with the deluge of Bond references on show and end up hammered way before the second act.

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Generally though, in terms of a Bond story, this does feel tonally like it’s closer to the original books, perhaps more so than Casino Royale (still the best Craig Bond). But the problem this film finds itself in, more than anything, is despite attempting to have a natural evolution from the past few stories, it feels cobbled together. Our hero races from one set piece and country to the next and it all feels forced. With loose threads and characters dropped at various points to keep the story moving along it seemed the writers had leapt on a runaway train and had no idea how to stop it.

Simple stories are often the hardest to tell and, in this case, it feels as if the filmmakers have overcomplicated things. And somehow, bafflingly, they’ve put themselves in a place where, despite trying to continue the story from past outings, they still have to world build and introduce new characters. And that always takes time.

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So for me, SPECTRE the organisation and SPECTRE the film promised so much but delivered relatively little. Again, this is probably partially down to Sam Mendes impressing us all with his first go round, but for the most part this latest franchise entry just underwhelmed me.

Trying to pin down the reasons behind my feeling (or lack of it) I think was partly due to the story feeling clunky and numerous characters being short-changed. And when they did show up they barely made an impact (Monica Bellucci and Dave Bautista, the top suspects). Those that did get more scenes also didn’t really leap off the screen (Andrew Scott for example, just seemed unhappy to be there).

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And some just didn’t seem to fit the film properly at all; specifically Lea Seydoux as Bond’s love interest. Now she’s French, so I wonder whether they were trying to replicate the Eva Green effect with Craig? That fizzled at the time. Here though, Seydoux does perfectly well, but just seems too young and cute to be the right fit. Whether it’s actually an age thing I don’t know (Craig is 47, Seydoux is 30), but I’m not entirely buying that. Chemistry is chemistry, and here it didn’t work.

Or maybe Mendes just had other fish to fry? In particular Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. Waltz, if you give him good lines, will make them sing and dance for you. Yet here, as the powerful and troubled head of SPECTRE, he didn’t seem that frightening. He also didn’t have many scenes which really came alive. He’s undoubtedly a terrific actor, but it seemed like he was either coasting or didn’t have much to work with.

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Now many critics (and fans) have raved about this film already. Strong opening weekend, Mendes, Craig and the gang back together again and all that… so maybe I’m being harsh but I’ll stick to my guns. Bond is the longest running franchise in cinematic history (excluding the Carry On films, wahey!) and its standards are high, so we expect more. And I’m not even a rabid fan.

I am, however, a huge fan of Casino Royale and Skyfall and some past Bonds (I grew up in the Pierce Brosnan era), but each new instalment should surpass the last, and this one just trod water. Which simply isn’t acceptable. Judi Dench’s M would never have stood for it.

Trailer park: Spectre, Southpaw, Spooks

First things first, let’s get the big guns out of the way. As far as new trailers go, the latest Bond film gets top billing. There’s also one from Jake Gyllenhaal – who’s in a bit of a purple patch – and some spy thingy set in London and starring ‘fit Kit’ Harington (him off Game of Thrones).

Spectre
Bond is back baby, oh yes. Tying up the Skyfall and Quantum of Solace storylines nicely, this sees the return of his biggest foe, evil network SPECTRE. Mr White is back looking harrowed, Bond calm and collected, and, the thing that’s going to get most fanboys excited, Christoph Waltz as the big baddie. With Sam Mendes again directing and new additions Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux joining the cast expect another triumph.

Southpaw
My top film of last year was Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal putting in a phenomenally chameleonic performance. Physically he changes tack here to beef up for this tale of a boxer out to do right by his little girl and return to the ring. Interestingly, the UK’s very own Rita Ora plays a drug addict in it too.

Spooks: The Greater Good
It’s impossible to mention this film’s title without bringing to mind a certain scene in Hot Fuzz. That aside, it’s nice to see the Game of Thrones lot branch out. We’ve recently had Richard Madden (Rob Stark) in Cinderella, and now here’s Kit Harington (Jon Snow) tearing around London as an MI5 agent trying to uncover a conspiracy, doing what we can hope is a darn better job than Jack Bauer did in the last season of 24.

Best twenty films of 2012

It’s been an epic year for films across a variety of genres. This list reflects my taste in films so I hope you enjoy. Sorry Twilight, you didn’t make the cut!

  • Skyfall
    skyfall-craigStrangely there are people who don’t like this film and say it’s not classic Bond. I think it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond since Connery. To celebrate 50 years of Bond, the dream team of Mendes, Craig, Bardem and Dench pulled out the stops to make this film truly special.
  • Argo
    Can’t believe people still give Affleck a hard time for his early career. How many decent films does he need to direct before people will admit he’s a real talent? First Gone Baby Gone and The Town and now this. A proper, intelligent thriller.
  • Moonrise Kingdom
    This film is a great companion piece for The Life Aquatic, my favourite from Wes Anderson. As always, a great cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton. Although focus is on the two, young actors who confidently carry the story. A sweet and quirky tale.
  • Looper
    Rian Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are fast becoming a match made in heaven. First Brick and now this time-travelling sci-fi tale of assassins. This film had an interesting mix of futuristic and retro, plus it marked Gordon-Levitt out as a leading man in the making.
  • Silver Linings Playbook
    SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKForget Hunger Games, this ranks as my favourite Jennifer Lawrence film, just edging Winter’s Bone. She has great chemistry with Bradley Cooper, both of them playing flawed characters in this acerbic, edgy and alternative type of rom-com. Highly recommended.
  • Chronicle
    Earlier this year this film was released and flew somewhat under the radar. Shown in found footage style, the best way to describe the first half is Jackass with telekinetic powers. It then goes darker as it builds to an epic finale. Thoroughly deserving of a place on this list.
  • Dark Knight Rises
    The final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing bat franchise. Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Gordon-Levitt as Boy Wonder in the making. This was an emotional, visceral ending to the best set of Batman films of all time.
  • Avengers Assemble
    Despite my last comment regarding Batman, Marvel Studios has firmly staked its claim as the lighter, more upbeat side of the superhero world. Joss Whedon pulling off an incredible trick to balance a film with a host of big characters, letting them all shine equally.
  • Ted
    ted
    Macfarlane knows his comedy. This film was his vision and really paid off. From script and direction through to mo-cap acting, he was the driving force. Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg added their dramatic and comedy talent to make this one of the funniest films of the year.
  • Life of Pi  
    Ang Lee’s tale of a young boy shipwrecked at sea with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker is a visual masterpiece. Taken from a Booker prize-winner novel, it makes you question the nature of belief and how you perceive the world. An uplifting and life-affirming tale.
  • The Raid: Redemption
    Combine the talents of a Welsh Director and up-and-coming action star in Iko Uwais and you get an unexpected, kick-ass treat. Introducing us to pencak silat, an Indonesian form of dance and self defence, it’s breathtaking to watch when used to beat up bad guys.
  • The Hobbit
    Peter Jackson has worked wonders yet again. The dwarves are great and Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo. His ‘riddles in the dark’ scene with Gollum is brilliantly scripted. If you’re even a fleeting fantasy fan you won’t want to miss this exhilarating tale.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
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    Critically well received, this fantasy film has drawn comparisons with Pan’s Labyrinth and is well worth seeing. It tells the tale of six-year-old girl Hushpuppy who, when looking after her ill and hot-tempered father, must learn the ways of courage and love.
  • Rust and Bone
    It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Marion Cotillard – there’s a permanent picture of her on my blog. Here she beautifully plays a killer whale trainer who forms an unlikely romance with a bouncer. Jacques Audiard directs this passionate and moving love story.
  • The Master
    Possibly a career-best film from Paul Thomas Anderson and performance from Joaquin Phoenix? Ultimately, this film is about the fascinating interplay between war veteran Freddie (Phoenix) and movement leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
  • Seven Psychopaths
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    From the Director of darkly comic film In Bruges, this tale of kidnapped dogs and gangsters is hilariously scripted and brilliantly acted. With a cast including Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson.
  • End of Watch
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena put in the hours with cops on the beat in South Central LA to form a real bond prior to filming. The results paid off, as this thriller cop movie has real believability and chemistry between the two leads.
  • Magic Mike
    Ladies of Tampa‘, croons Matthew McConaughey, before he smashes his guitar and strips in front of a horde of screaming ladies. This film, though, belongs to Channing Tatum. Before acting he was a stripper – this film gives an intriguing glimpse of life back stage in that world.
  • The Grey
    It’s Liam Neeson, he’s cold, he’s angry, wolves are trying to kill him. In a minute he’s going to get really mad – what’s not to like? This bleak adventure sees a bunch of oil workers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash – in the middle of a wolf kill zone.
  • 21 Jump Street
    21 jump street
    Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill team up in this cop buddy comedy remake. Tatum is – surprisingly – very funny, with great comic timing. Jokes are often set up and don’t pan out how you might expect, which is a good thing. Also, Johnny Depp has an outstanding cameo.

Skyfall, Mendes, Bond and badass Bardem

Bond team assemble! Ok, I’ve slightly mixed up my franchises but seriously, hats off to Sam Mendes. Or should it be hats off to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson? The producers behind Bond in the Brosnan and Craig eras. Maybe we should also doff our caps to Daniel Craig? Not just for his performance as Bond so far, but for his recommendation for Sam Mendes to direct. His influence is clear to see.

What he’s done is strip Bond back, not just to the visceral, gritty feel we got in Casino Royale, but on an emotional level, to a point where he’s fallible, broken, hell-bent on resurrection and proving that, whilst he may be a bit of dinosaur in the modern age of espionage, he’s still a necessary tool in MI6’s arsenal. Let’s look at the factors that make this Bond one of the best we’ve had in a long time.
james bondSam Mendes
Many of you will know him as the Director of American Beauty in 1999, however the best reference point in terms of why he got the Bond gig is probably Road to Perdition in 2002, his first film with Daniel Craig. But then, he’s always had a common theme running through his work – family roots and close ties. From American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, through to Jarhead and Skyfall, his films have first and foremost been about relationships and the bonds between certain characters.

For those that doubted his ability to handle action, Id like to point out the opening sequence in Skyfall – an exhilarating rooftop motorbike chase, culminating in a fight on top of a train and kick-starting the film’s events. The whole sequence is tense, dramatic and thoroughly exciting – pitched perfectly between realism and fantasy, which is precisely what we expect from Bond.

There’s plenty of other scenes I could use as examples of why Mendes was the man for the job. Suffice to say he balanced action, drama and classic Bond moments with quiet, tender scenes that really gave the film weight and characters depth – particularly the relationship between Bond and M, which I’ll come to later.

Roger Deakins
Simply put, the man who makes Mendes look good! Deakins was Cinematographer on this film, the person who plans and coordinates the actual shooting of the film, capturing the Director’s vision on screen. Relationships between Directors and Cinematographers vary. In this case, Deakins has worked with Mendes before and also extensively with the Coen brothers. He’s been nominated for stacks of awards, including winning a lifetime achievement award in 2011.

In terms of Skyfall, there’s a veritable plethora of beautifully shot scenes: Bond staring over the grey London skyline, coffins draped in the Union Jack, the opening chase sequence in Turkey, a yacht sailing towards an abandoned island when we first meet Bardem’s Silva, then there’s the whole of the third act in Scotland.

If you want to capture the rugged, majestic beauty of a wild landscape, Deakin should be on your speed-dial as a Director. He’s the man behind No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Jarhead, Shawshank Redemption – I could go on, check out his body of work.

bond skyfallJavier Bardem
What a villian! Bardem seemed to position him as the perfect blend of deranged, menacing, calculating and camp, or at least sexually ambiguous. His first scene is a classic and up there with Heath Ledger’s introduction as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities to be drawn between Bardem’s Silva and Ledger’s Joker. In terms of physical looks, chilling back-story and meticulously planned acts of terrorism. In Dark Knight, the Joker spends about a third of the film outwitting Batman and Gordon, similarly Silva runs rings around Bond and M from his introduction up until the closing act.

That said, I’m not suggesting Ledger’s Joker would fit in Bond’s world. Bardem’s Silva still remained very much his own creation in that sense. His motivation – a deeply felt vendetta towards Judi Dench’s M – drives his actions. You’ll have to watch the film to find out why – I’ll just say that Bardem gives Silva’s motivation for vengeance against M believability. So often in action films I’ve not got on board with the villian and his or her motivations to kill someone/take over the world. In this case Bardem makes it work, giving Silva a tortured soul and fire in his eyes.

Bond and M
When talking about Mendes and themes in his work, I mentioned relationships and bonds between characters. In this case, a key driver of the film is the dynamic between Bond and M. Whilst some might feel screen-time for stunning Bond girls has been somewhat sacrificed, you could argue Bond charging around with a beautiful girl in tow doesn’t give us anything new.
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Of course you get Bond girls here, but more time is devoted to M, arguably the ultimate Bond girl in the Broccoli/Wilson era. From her casting as the first female M in Goldeneye in 1995, through to Skyfall in 2012, she’s become progressively more influential with each film, particular in Daniel Craig’s time in the role.

There’s a scene where she’s deciding whether Bond is fit for active duty and Mallory – played by Ralph Fiennes – says to her, ‘You’re sentimental about him’. Mendes lets this relationship unfold superbly, culminating in a tender, elegant and heartfelt moment in the third act.

50 years of Bond
I’d like to finish with a musical clip below by A. Skilz and Krufty Kutz, submitted to Annie Mac’s show on BBC Radio One in the UK. They created it to celebrate 50 years of Bond. If you’ve forgotten what’s so good about the character and this franchise, remind yourself now. I guarantee you’ll be giddy with excitement at the end. Proud to be British.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – what went wrong?

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Clearly I must be a churl. According to Pulitzer prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert I fit the profile, at least to a degree. To explain, I was flicking through channels today – I know for those of you that read my posts regularly it may sound like I do this a lot, I really don’t – and settled on watching a bit of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for one simple reason, Angelina Jolie. There is literally no other reason to watch this film.angelina jolie
When it came out in 2001 Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars saying ‘Lara Croft elevates goofiness to an art form. Here is a movie so monumentally silly, yet so wondrous to look at, that only a churl could find fault.’ This left me conflicted, am I a churl? I see many faults!

For those of you not in the know, a churl is defined as a surly, ill-bred person. Now I’m sure that’s not me, however I take the point, this film really is ridiculous. But if you cannot embrace its ridiculousness, I don’t think that makes you a churl. Similarly I don’t think it’s that wondrous to look at, Angelina excepted. I could forgive its ridiculous nature if other things didn’t bug me, let’s examine them.

Supporting cast
Angelina excluded, who clearly was Lara Croft, the rest of the cast – including Daniel Craig – just didn’t cut it. Ok, Craig did ok, but the rest? Chris Barrie (still best known as Rimmer from Red Dwarf) was doing his best Alfred the butler impersonation. I suppose he was comic relief but his presence seemed jarring, especially when you stuck him next to Angelina. A perfect modern day alternative? Assuming Michael Caine is busy and you want some young blood, I’d go with Matt Smith, great comic timing and quirkyness. Then, to replace the tech IT nerd character that also assists Lara, I’d go with the excellent Ben Whishaw, soon to be seen as Q in the new Bond, Skyfall.

Gary OldmanBad guy
Played by an actor called Iain Glen (recently in season 1 of Game of Thrones), who actually has solid acting credentials. Aside from the fact he looks a little like a cut-price Steven Seagal, he just wasn’t compelling – or evil – enough to hold the screen against Angelina. You need an actor with a track record in big, brash evil villains, like Gary Oldman. Tom Berenger’s been having a bit of a revival lately, or Gary Busey. The latter filed for bankruptcy earlier this year so might bring a lot of evil frustration to the role – he could do with the money!

Script/plot
Some of the dialogue was pretty corny and wooden and the plot often felt contrived. There were whole scenes where they had to explain a lot of story points (John Voight’s letter from beyond the grave scene springs to mind), which is not the best way to let a plot unfold. A lot of this could have been smoothed over with more assured direction. Which brings us to…

Director

Simon West is an English Director best known for his debut film, Con Air in 1997. He was originally set up to direct Black Hawk Down, but due to conflicts took up Tomb Raider instead. I feel he would have been supremely out of his depth with the former. However, his loss was our gain, as we got Ridley Scott on that one.

The easiest way to explain West’s style is if you think of him as a budget version Michael Bay – then you’ve got some idea of what he does to films. Just look at his latest offering Expendables 2. In terms of alternatives, I would love to see a remake of Tomb Raider with Guillermo del Toro at the helm. I know I suggest him for a lot of films, but with good reason. A mystical journey, tombs with monsters, a kick-ass heroine – imagine what he could do!

Ok, so that’s my lot, rant over, I hope you enjoyed my thoughts. Now I’m not saying if you’re flicking channels and this film comes on, to turn over. You have to enjoy it for what it is, relatively average action, slightly rescued by the fact we get to look at lovely Angelina. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it’s ridiculous but you have to love it!