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.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – progress, this is

Staaaar Waarrrs, na na na, Staaar Waaars. So sang my partner Saturday morning as we strolled down to the rather lovely Olympic studios cinema in southwest London to catch the latest in the franchise, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson.

This film continues events from The Force Awakens, one which saw the return of old characters that many of us loved so dearly from the original films: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill); although the latter only appeared in a single scene.

It also ushered in a new generation of heroes that mixed it up well with the golden oldies: scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), Stormtrooper turned rebel Finn (John Boyega), X-Wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) and a few others. Plus, a new bad guy, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), taking on the heavy burden of Darth Vader’s mantle, but giving us a more layered, nuanced and conflicted antagonist than Vader ever really was.

At the end of The Force Awakens, (SPOILER if you’ve not seen it) Rey, realising she was naturally strong with the force, went off in search of Luke and found him living as a recluse on a windswept island, the spiritual home of the Jedi.

So, logically, we pick up (with a brief detour with prequel Rogue One) where we left off and The Last Jedi’s focus, in part, is Rey’s quest to find out why Luke has hidden himself away, and what happened with Ben that caused the young apprentice to bat for Team Evil; causing Luke to blame himself and ultimately retreat to a corner of the galaxy, Obi-Wan/Yoda style, to live out his days.

The Last Jedi is also very much Rey’s journey – who is she, really? Why does she have such power? Who are her parents? What connection does she have to Kylo? What can Luke teach her? Does he even want to teach her? For me, this exploration of character is the most interesting part of the story.

Alongside Luke’s holiday island getaway storyline we have the usual cat and mouse back and forth space tangles across the galaxy, with the First Order chasing rebel scum. Big ships, little ships, cardboard boxes. Although, cleverly, Johnson turns this into a slow burn strategic battle, with the rebels staying a safe (ish) distance from the First Order as they inexorably run out of fuel.

This chase is led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hamming it up and spitting venom with every chance he gets. On the side of the rebellion we have General Leia, but also a new addition, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, with tremendous purple hair). She lends an air of calm, warmth and gravitas to the impulsive rebellion. Leia version 2.0, in a way.

Her addition helps the gender balance too, with all the big swinging light sabres around the place – something her character directly addresses when putting Isaac’s flyboy Poe in his place, following Leia doing much the same to him in an earlier scene. Both women criticise him for acting the hero no matter the cost, saying that true leaders are less cavalier with the lives of those they’ve said they’d protect. Which is actually a pretty refreshing shift in character for a blockbuster to take.

Moreover, this could be a giant flag planted in terms of where Disney want to take the franchise, reinventing and progressing it and moving it away from the Alpha male Han Solo types, to perhaps a more considered protagonist. Which can only be a good thing for future films. If it works with Stars Wars, it’ll work with most big movies they put out.

So, Johnson has written and directed a film that’s in keeping with – and respectful of – existing Star Wars canon, but also paves the way for the future, with an engaging, progressive story and compelling (largely modern) strong characters (that are both men and women) and feels logical, in terms of a narrative, in that the first film, The Force Awakens, is Han’s story, therefore The Last Jedi becomes Luke’s, with Leia the glue between the two.

(As one internet meme suggested, it’s basically the galaxy’s most dysfunctional family inflicting their woes on everyone else, resulting in decades of war).

Roughly a week since the film’s release it’s also a funny thing because there has been massive backlash, much more so than The Force Awakens, with some have accusing it of being ‘too Disney’, whatever that means. These were always kid’s films, so yeah, odd. Moreover, there’s a lot of adult material in them, but they’re fun adventures. I mean, Wikipedia describes them as ‘epic space operas’, so we shouldn’t really hold them to a higher bar than that.

Then there’s the diversity criticism: all these women, shock, horror, where did they come from? Or a black guy and an Asian woman in such prominent roles? Who the hell signed this off? People of colour can’t be Stormtroopers, women can’t be rebels, admirals, generals, blah, blah, whatever. These people can crawl back under the rocks from whence they came. I mean, honestly.

Hey, listen, this is progress. Whatever the film, however one interprets it, this is all moving in what, presumably, is the right direction in terms of modern cinema. Unless you’re some sort of misogynist, racist, luddite, who considers a ‘modern’ hero to be Harrison Ford leering over Carrie Fisher’s Leia, not letting her escape, then forcing a kiss. Or the fact that the original films had one person of colour, Lando; the satisfaction of a diversity box ticked and a job well done at the time.

Anyway, digressing. To put things in perspective, this film has had the second biggest opening weekend in movie history, $450m worldwide. So, someone is watching (and enjoying it), yet online trolls have loud voices, so we just must remember to take them with a pinch of salt. And not feed them.

For my part, the cast (the new lot) looked much more settled in their roles. The comedy largely works, despite what backwards fanboys/man-babies cry about on the internet. There’s a lot more flesh on the bones of characters, in particular Kylo Ren and Rey and the dynamic between them both. The way their relationship plays out is one of the most interesting things about the film.

And Luke. Good old Mr Skywalker.

In all honesty, Mark bloody Hamill is perhaps the coolest character to make a return to this franchise. Whilst Leia, Han, Chewie and others left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, Luke returning was actually just hands-down cool. Particularly one or two scenes in the film’s final third, which basically cemented Luke as one of the most compelling (and bad ass) heroes to grace the franchise. Straight out of a Western, in the best sense.

Thinking back, I found him a fairly straight arrow hero in the original films, but here he’s so much more layered. Taking a leaf from Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan in the originals, here Hamill gets to showcase a lot more of his acting chops, and it’s a delight to see.

I’ll need to see Rogue One again to be sure, but I think this might possibly pip it to the post as the best of the new Star Wars films yet. Simply because it’s trying a few new things, which is, frankly, what this franchise needs if it’s going to stay relevant to a modern audience.

Rachel Weisz – her top 5 performances

A few years ago there was a survey of celebrity ladies in a men’s style magazine. To the question ‘Who would you most like to marry?’ men unanimously went for Weisz.

At the time she was single and responded saying ‘So I’m the most marriable but I’m not married?’ Perhaps because it took an alpha, Bond-esque male for her to say yes. Damn.

Anyway, my slightly convoluted point was to illustrate how the thinking man holds her in high regard. She’s one of those actresses that flies slightly under the radar at times. Whilst obviously stunningly beautiful she chooses her roles intelligently, mixing blockbusters with more considered, indie projects. Not every actress has the skill, star appeal and versatility to pick and choose roles in this manner.

I recently posted a list of a thinking man’s top actresses and shamefully didn’t include her. This post, I hope, will make amends. Below is my pick of her five best performances.

  1. The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
    You’ve got to hand it to Weisz, she’s maturing like a good single malt whisky (better than a fine wine in my opinion). Last year she gave us one of her finest performances to date as Hester, the lady at the centre of a love triangle, in an adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s 1955 play.
  2. The Constant Gardener (2005)
    After a string of average action blockbusters, she fought to get this role and it’s clear she had desire to play the part with conviction. Her performance as Amnesty activist Tessa was accessible and compelling and the results won her an Oscar.
  3. The Fountain (2006)
    Choosing to work with up-and-coming indie Director and partner at the time, Darren Aranofsky, her performance is raw, affecting and heartfelt. I wonder – in an alternate universe – what she’d have been like playing Nina instead of Natalie Portman in Aranofsky’s Black Swan. Would she have bagged an Oscar as Portman did?
  4. The Brothers Bloom (2008)
    After success of indie noir thriller Brick, Director Rian Johnson made this film, echoing Wes Anderson’s style. It didn’t make much on release but gained a cult following afterwards. Weisz is great in it – quirky, bubbly and loveable. Again, her desire to work with up-and-coming Directors must have been a factor – Johnson followed this with critically acclaimed sci-fi Looper.
  5. Confidence (2003)
    Playing a budding con artist, she had an interesting chemistry with Ed Burns. Seductive, sultry, hard-to-read – the perfect foil to Ed Burns and his smug approach to conning. This film really reminds me of her timeless beauty – the perfect femme fatale in any era.

Honourable mentions should go to The Mummy (1999), About a Boy (2002) and The Bourne Legacy (2012). All considerably lifted by her presence. The Mummy, in particular, launched the action side of her career, putting her on the map for many people. Plus she gets added kudos for making Brendan Fraser bearable.

So there’s my list. If you’ve not seen all the ones in my top 5, seek them out and watch them soon, particularly if you’re a Weisz fan. If you’re not, you’ll soon become one I promise you. I’ll leave you with the photo-shoot that accompanied the survey in the men’s style magazine I mentioned at the start of this post. Enjoy!

Looper review: Bruce Willis and Blunderbuses!

Initially I had read various reviews before seeing Looper – a bad idea, but there you go. So I went to see this film with relatively high hopes for a high-concept time travel film, which is what you get. Except it isn’t, not exactly.

To explain, just before seeing it I was having dinner near the cinema and got talking to the waiter. I mentioned I was going to see a film, ‘Oh, what are you going to see?’ he asked. “Looper” I replied. ‘I’ve seen it’ he said, ‘it’s not what I expected’.

gordon-levitt bruce willisWith that I left the restaurant a little puzzled. It was not the first time someone had said something similar. So I made my way to the cinema a little apprehensive, but still open-minded and ready for a good film. I was hoping for time travel, big guns, assassins, explosions, double crossing, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis facing off against each other and ultimately teaming up to defeat a common enemy.

Now you do get a lot of these elements, but not in the way you might think. Remember this is from the same Director that gave us Brick, so I should have been prepared for something a little left-field, not your obvious tone and style. I think, like a lot of high-concept films, this will require a second viewing to fully appreciate it.

In terms of the film’s big draw, the marketing types would like you to focus on Willis (established actor) facing off against his younger self, Gordon-Levitt (up and coming actor). However I felt the Director was slightly playing a trick on the audience and this film was really about a character called the Rainmaker.

Let’s set the scene. Gordon-Levitt is a ‘looper’, an assassin who kills people sent back in time, as it’s somewhat hard to commit murder in the future. Easier to send bodies back and have loopers dispose of them. As this is highly illegal loopers have a short life span, in that their employers look to send them back to be killed by their younger selves when they’ve outlived their usefulness. This is called ‘closing your loop’.

Where it all begins..
Now the story kicks off when Bruce is sent back for his loop to be closed, but evades assassination as he’s got his own agenda. He plans to whack his future boss – the mysterious Rainmaker – who happens to be a child in Gordon-Levitt’s time.

looper farmHis younger self feels killing children who may or may not become future crime lords is a little excessive, so sets out to stop him and protect the kid. Now, for me, that’s what this film is about, however it takes a while to get there.

All the high-concept time travel stuff has to be set up first, Gordon-Levitt’s world, how he goes about his job, his older self and his motivation for coming back in time. As a result, I felt all the key stuff comes in the third act – with a slightly sagging middle in terms of pace, when Gordon-Levitt meets Emily Blunt’s character. No reflection on Ms Blunt, I think she’s great.

That said, the ‘sagging’ section is just slower in pace but does contain a lot of plot revelations and key scenes. To be honest, I’ve found writing this piece quite hard without giving too much away. Much like a scene in the film in a diner where Willis and Gordon-Levitt face off against each – reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat – and Willis remarks on how too much discussion of time travel will only end with them making straw diagrams and getting a headache.

Let’s just sum up. I did like this film and want to see it again – if only to get my head around it. I feel maybe Bruce’s character could have had more back-story, so we sympathise more with his reasons for coming back to the past. Perhaps Rian Johnson’s script could have been more brutal in early scenes to save time and move things along quicker.

All in all though, a really interesting film and concept and worth seeing. Just don’t expect your average high-octane, pump the action up to 10 and keep it there, type film. It’s more considered and ultimately better for it.

To finish, here’s some artwork by an illustrator from Uruguay I’d like to share. Until next time…