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.

Nerds never say die

I recently read a book called Ready Player One that’ll soon be a movie.
Which got me thinking how growing up nerd was absurd.
So yeah, go ahead, shoot me.
Cos I get it.
Everyone’s obsessed with the 80s.
Which I confess, is so crazy.
As when we look back, we just remember the gravy.
Nostalgia goggles set to rose-tinted and hazy.
But it is what it is.
So let’s begin.
Now I could lie and say this begins in a violent and bloody way with our hero of the silver screen, Lucky Day.
Stealing scenes in Little Neddy Goes to War.
As telling you this, My Little Buttercup, would help settle a score.
But it’s not really true.
So I should start with when you and I got robbed.
By that bastard El Guapo.
Cos he wanted us to die like dogs.
But I confused him with moves more sly like fox.
And could define the word plethora.
(But I’ll keep that under my fedora.)
Next thing, I’d been smacked on my Dusty Bottoms.
And sent Back to the Future for being a loser.
Left in a flux, with no capacitor to be a true challenger to the powers that be.
Seduced by Delirium.
Fearing the Sandman had devoured my dreams.
Leaving behind his punk rock sister.
Till it was all I could do not to cower and scream.
But, somehow, she took pity.
And I found a reprieve.
So yeah, my life, until recently, has not been much fun.
I mean, everyone’s so serious.
Forever telling me that there can be only one.
But am I really deserving?
Lately, I’ve been fearing the Kurgen and when he’s returning.
As he’s the most devious type of vicious baddie.
Incidentally, shout out the mighty Mr Miyagi.
The way he taught me to treat my enemies was a gift and so savvy and kind of uncanny.
I remember how he and I would have a laugh in that amusement park.
Scaring the crap out of Scooby and Shaggy.
But to step back for a sec.
For most of my youth, I’d keep my mask in place.
Praying for an intervention at detention.
Because, in principle, I was a basket case.
But also a brain, an athlete, and a criminal.
So my teens were pivotal and perhaps my pinnacle.
Cos it meant so much to be part of that club.
A group where I could express and be free.
Which leads me to say, please… Don’t You (forget about me).
But remember when Jake and I ate cake when I was sweet sixteen.
Or when science helped me create a woman from my wildest dreams.
Or that time I gave jewellery to Hoggle cos he liked its gleam.
Forgotten that?
You know… it’s when we hung with Ludo and got our rocks off.
Before playing ‘let the wookie win’ got me stranded on that Starship Destroyer.
Oddly, dressed as Inigo Montoya.
Which resulted in a fight with the man in black.
Telling him, with conviction, that I’ll be back.
Cos his boss, the Emporer, had killed my father and should prepare to die.
Which didn’t have the effect I had come to expect.
Cos I’m a T-800.
I don’t have the flair to lie.
Even though I’m the scary type.
But bad things do happen when I embrace my machismo.
Think food after midnight, a glass of water, and a face-off with Gizmo.
But as you’d expect.
The point came when I started getting too old for this shit.
I’m a family man.
Fair cop, I’m good at my job.
But I can’t be bolder than Riggs.
He’s a mad man, with dark undertones.
I should have known something was up when he invited me to his vast thunderdome.
But anyway.
Maybe I’m better off freezing enemies in carbonite.
But if their force is strong.
There’s only really a half chance they’ll die.
Simpler to knock ’em out and toss ’em to the sarlacc.
See how far they fly.
Yet the obvious solution for a nerf herder like me, always seems to be the last to try.
So I tend to end up surrounded by bad guys.
Which gets me all pent up.
Makes me want to rip off my shirt.
Phone box style, like Clarke Kent does.
But yeah, there’s bad guys.
And then there’s me, a joker with my rifle and my gun.
Ready for fighting and ready for fun.
Cos I’m a ticking time bomb type of package.
Shouting Good Morning Vietnam to motivate the troops.
Trying to minimise their damage.
Cos I can’t help it.
I’m a funny guy, and a devil of habit.
Ready to travel to battle, all g’eed up in my Full Metal Jacket.
Hoping I can save Toon Town from these clowns and clear the name of Roger Rabbit.
But missions go wrong.
So I often spend time lying low.
Playing cards with my buddy Lion-O.
But he’s too good.
So I cheat harder.
Which doesn’t cut it with Cheetara.
Cos she’s smarter.
So I tell her it’s cool.
That we’re having a laugh.
And this behaviour is in no way damaging Snarf.
But any good will she has, at this point, vanishes fast.
Cos he’s so impressionable.
And we do lead him astray in a silly way.
Which makes me want to trade places.
Like Winthorpe and Billy Ray.
Then take a flight back in time as the navigator.
Till I end up clashing Nazis in a fight cos I’m the raider.
But as I was named after the dog, I won’t excuse my behaviour.
Even though, in archaeological circles, my methods have kinda fallen out of favour.
So I’ll just say this.
Remember that, there, up there, it’s their time.
Down here, it’s our time.
It’s our time, down here.
So with life it’s best just to plunge in, have adventures and say fuck it.
Cos it’ll all be over the second we choose to ride up Troy’s bucket.

Best bad movie accents

The dreaded accent. When a casting director calls an agent and asks if their client can do X accent, the answer always has to be, ‘Of course! Are you kidding? They’re a natural!’. It’s either that or the casting director ALREADY KNOWS the actor in question cannot do said accent for love nor money, but they’re a big star and will pull in audiences regardless of whether they drift from American to English cockney to South African, and all things inbetween.

Anyway, here are some of my favourites that – God bless ’em – tried their hardest to pull off something beyond their mother tongue.

Gerard Butler

Ok, recently I watched Olympus Has Fallen and, a week or so later, London Has Fallen, and his American accent is wobbly at best. But then, the whole movie is kind of a joke, so an accent is the least of our worries here.

Jason Statham

Suffers the same fate as old Gerard, in that his American accent is like the weather. Sometimes good sometimes bad, but it’s anyone’s guess what’ll turn up on the day. Maybe it’s just action stars? They’ve never been great at accents, I find.

Don Cheadle

His stab at cockney in the Ocean’s films was truly something. And the problem was it seemed like he was GENUINELY taking it seriously and not some quirk where his character found it amusing to do silly accents.

Natalie Portman

Now it pains me to stick her in this list but her ‘English’ accent in V for Vendetta jarred with me for the entire film. Pity, as she’s SUCH a good actress too. And I bet she’s got a good accent or two in her locker. Just not in this case.

Nic Cage

Not known for immersing in a part his mediocre Southern drawl in Con Air was pretty patchy. And Italian in Captian Corelli’s Mandolin? Hey, forget about it.

Cameron Diaz

Poor Cameron, ever the sun-kissed Californian beach babe. Her go at Irish in Gangs of New York was admirable but it didn’t convince anyone. DiCaprio’s wasn’t a whole lot better, if we’re honest.

Anne Hathaway

Now for Americans, an English accent is tough at the best of times, so what made Anne think she could manage a tricky regional one in One Day? Truly awful.


Then there’s those actors that poke fun at themselves because they KNOW their accent is a big joke. They’re in on the gag.

Brad Pitt

In both Inglorious Basterds and Snatch he revelled in his shoddy accent, either put on for a scene or two (the former) or the entire film (the latter). Although he’s also come a cropper attempting a serious Irish accent in The Devil’s Own.

Kevin Costner

It’s funny, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Costner didn’t attempt an accent at all and just used his own. Weirdly, it didn’t bother me at the time. But it still makes this list. Hooray for Carey Elwes calling him out on it years later, though.

Sean Connery

What’s great about Highlander is Connery was meant to be Spanish and he simply didn’t bother AT ALL. Already a huge star he probably felt turning up was enough. He was probably right too. Given Christophe Lambert’s ‘Scottish’ was even worse.

The pen is mightier than the sword

penbluePicture this: you’re in a fight, possibly to the death, and you’re on the brink of losing. You’re scrabbling around to find purchase on something, anything to give you an advantage. Your fingers grasp a thin object. Dimly, through the red mist, you realise the tides are turning, your luck is in; for you have come into your possession a weapon mightier than most in the world of movies: the humble pen.

Many a movie fight has conveniently been won this way. I suppose this is typical of the cinematic world because we all know, in real life, you can never find a bloody pen when you want one. And the chances of one finding your questing fingers during a fight are next to nil.

But then, maybe that’s why it works. Fate is a cruel mistress and likes to throw us a lifeline when we least expect it. Anyway, moving on. To celebrate the pen (and pencil), let’s look at movie scenes where this unassuming little object has briefly taken the limelight.

The Bourne Identity (2002)

Guy flies through the window with a machine gun then comes at you with a knife, what do you do? Calmly grab a pen and dispatch him, that’s what. Jason Bourne, still absent memory, demonstrates how lethal a biro can really be. Pen vs. knife? The knife stood no chance.


Liar Liar
(1997)

‘The colour of the pen that I hold in my hand is…ROYAL BLUE!’ Jim Carrey at his overacting best in the late ’90s, as a lawyer condemned to tell the truth as the result of a birthday wish made by his son. Silly, but entertaining stuff.

The Naked Gun (1988)

The Japanese fighting fish; beautiful, graceful and elegant. Quickly gets skewered with a rare Samurai pen by Lieutenant Frank Drebin, Police Squad! The pen in question being unbreakable, impervious to everything but water. Pure comedy gold.


Shaun of the Dead
(2004)

‘You’ve got red on you.’ Shaun’s pen leaks on his shirt early on in the film: a portent of things to come and an observant nod to the mindless and banal comments people say every day. Here’s a little compilation from the film. Ah, zombie-filled memories.

The Dark Knight (2008)

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t have my boy here pull your head off? ‘How about a magic trick?'” Quite simply one of the best character entrances to a film in recent years. Heath Ledger’s Joker took us all by surprise. He begins with a simple pencil…


Batman
(1989)

Another entry for the Joker, this time Jack Nicholson’s flamboyant portrayal. Here he sports a wonderful feather quill pen, used to chilling effect to spear someone in the throat. Was Heath Ledger’s version in The Dark Knight an update of this scene? Both dark and compelling with a macabre sense of humour.

The Faculty (1998)

Always considered this film, directed by Robert Rodriguez, a bit of a guilty pleasure. With slightly cringing lines like ‘Aliens are taking over the fucking school’ and Famke Janssen asking for something ‘cherry flavoured’. This pen-related scene sees Josh Hartnett’s character stab his teacher in the eye, then watch in horror as he visibly dissolves.


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
(1989)

You’re Dr. Jones (Sean Connery) and you’re trapped in the body of a steel beast, otherwise known as a tank. You spot a chance to escape and end up grappling with the nearest Nazi soldier. Victory comes in the form of a squirting ink pen, leading your companion, Marcus Brody, to exclaim ‘The pen is mightier than the sword!

Goldeneye (1995)

Click, click, spin, click, spin, spin…BOOM! The old exploding pen trick. A classic Bond scene, building to an explosive finish. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond held captive, watching a programmer attempt to break a guidance code before Sean Bean’s bad guy rocket plummets back to earth. Little does he know he holds an explosive pen in his hand.

My top 10 supercool film soundtracks

  1. the life aquaticThe Life Aquatic
    (Wes Anderson)
    Two reasons this is my top choice, Seu Jorge and David Bowie. Seu Jorge’s take on Bowie tracks perfectly complemented the film. Standouts for me include his versions of ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Space Oddity and ‘Rebel Rebel’. Oh, and ‘Changes’, it’s beautiful.
  2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
    It’s hard to select just one Tarantino film soundtrack, most of his films have outstanding music to set the scene. If pushed for an alternative I’d probably say Kill Bill 1, then Reservoir Dogs. Pulp Fiction takes this one though, with use of Al Green, Dusty Springfield, Kool and the Gang, and many more.
  3. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)
    Jimmy ConwayThere’s detail here about how Scorsese only used songs that commented on the scene in question in some way. From Tony Bennett’s ‘Rags to Riches’ in the opening credits, the main character’s story is introduced. An absolute favourite scene is where Jimmy is considering whacking Morrie and Cream’s ‘Sunshine of your Love’ kicks in. Impossibly cool.
  4. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie)
    When this film appeared in 1998, the soundtrack was key to its appeal. ‘Spooky’ by Dusty Springfield, ‘Police and Thieves’ by Junior Murvin, ‘Walk this Land’ by EZ-Rollers, ‘Why did you do it’ by Stretch, ‘The Payback’ by James Brown, ‘Fools Gold’ by Stone Roses. Outstanding.
  5. corey and ginaEmpire Records (Allan Moyle)
    A mid 90s film about a group of slackers who work in a record store. It’s a really sweet film, never fails to perk me up if I’m down. There’s so many songs in it too, from the Gin Blossoms and Cranberries, through to Coyote Shivers and Better than Ezra. Check the playlist here.
  6. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
    Killer soundtrack, kicked off with Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ and never let up. Raw, gritty and very 1990s, with Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ for the sexy nightclub scene, and Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ overdose scene; tracks selected helped key scenes pack a massive punch.
  7. Juno (Jason Reitman)
    Super sweet indie film with lovely little songs throughout. Watch the opening credits theme song, with its quirky animation, it sums up the film. Actress Ellen Page – who played Juno – suggested to the Director her character would listen to The Moldy Peaches.
  8. natalie portman zach braffGarden State (Zach Braff)
    Another sweet indie film, powered along by the warm little centre that is Natalie Portman’s character. It also included lovely, quirky music by The Shins. If you don’t like this band then you have a heart of stone.
  9. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
    Despite his body of work, this is the first film to win Scorsese an Oscar. I think the phenomenal soundtrack throughout might have helped. The Dropkick Murphys ‘Shipping out to Boston’ fits perfectly. There’s also the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, for good measure.
  10. Snatch (Guy Ritchie)
    brad pittI’m going with another Guy Ritchie film. Along with The Stranglers ‘Golden Brown’ and ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ by 10cc, this had Madonna, The Specials, The Herbaliser, Oasis and – most impressively – ‘Angel’ by Massive Attack. Watch this scene, powerful stuff.

Looking back through this, I’ve realised it’s a mostly a mix of gangster and quirky, indie films. I’m comfortable with that. It reflects my film tastes, in terms of how music has influenced my love of a particular film at least. There was a lot of films that didn’t make the cut, but it’s a top 10 list, you have to be ruthless.

Use of music in film
I think there’s two routes you can go when using music to complement your film. Either have the music interwoven with the whole theme and tone of the film (think Wes Anderson, Jason Reitman). Or use individual songs to give particular scenes an emotional wallop (Martin Scorsese, Guy Ritchie).

Tarantino the wildcard
An interesting exception to the rule – for me – is Tarantino. Mostly I think he follows the Scorsese approach. However, if you take Kill Bill 1, he uses RZA from Wu-Tang Clan to produce the soundtrack, which weaves perfectly through the film.

‘The Lonely Shepherd’ by Gheorghe Zamfir is such a perfect song for this film. East meets West, pan pipes moving into spaghetti western. RZA heard this eating in a Thai restaurant. Not hard to believe. Similarly Tarantino heard ‘Woo hoo’ by the 5.6.7.8’s just as he was about to leave a shop in Tokyo. He persuaded the shop to sell him the CD and then got the band to appear in the film.

Anyway, I’m going off topic. This probably just proves Kill Bill should really be in my top 10 list. The Hattori Hanzo scene is a true classic and really should have convinced me of this. I humbly beg your forgiveness and ask that it be included as a wildcard.

Kill Bill