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Knives Out (2019)

Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who likes to dabble across genres and put his high-concept stamp on them. His debut film, 2006’s Brick, was a moody noir-flavored mystery set in a modern high school. His next film, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was a whimsical con artist movie with cons-within-cons, and then Looper took time travel and twisted it into knots. From there the man was tapped to not only direct a new Star Wars movie but write one, and 2017’s The Last Jedi proved so divisive that Russia literally created robotic accounts to exploit raw feelings to better sow discord among Americans and undermine democracy. Johnson must have needed a detox from that galaxy far far away, and Knives Out is his version of an Agatha Christie-styled parlor mystery. Once again Johnson has taken an older genre, subverted its form, and made it his own in a way that feels reverent while also fresh, fun, and thoroughly entertaining.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a world-renowned mystery writer with a publishing empire in the millions. Then on the night of his birthday party, Harlan is found dead and every family member is a suspect. Could it be Marta Cabreara (Ana de Armas), the nurse who was last seen taking care of the old man? Could it be the daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), eager to get out of her marriage to a cheating husband (Don Johnson, having a moment this fall)? Could it be the son Walt (Michael Shannon) who was going to lose his position of power in control of the family publishing empire? Could it be grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) who didn’t show up on time for the party but showed up early for the will reading? The local police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is doing his best to navigate the many suspects. And then there’s the famed private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), hired by an unknown benefactor to discover foul play, who interrogates each family member, investigates the corners of the estate, and uncovers the truth.

Knives Out is an incredibly fun movie to watch fly by for its extended 130-minute running time. The guessing game is enjoyable and there is a plethora of suspects and red herrings. Johnson is clearly a fan of the genre and doing his best to send it up in his own way while still staying true to its roots. Just look at the silly, Dickensian names and you can tell Johnson is enjoying himself (there’s a character named “Ransom”). The mystery is clever but it becomes something more than a whodunnit (more on that below) and that’s when Knives Out becomes special. Johnson has been repeatedly accused of being too clever by half, looking to produce some meta gymnastics to subvert audience expectations but to what end? This was an issue with the very end of Brothers Bloom and many had this same complaint with The Last Jedi. It’s not enough to subvert expectations if the alternative isn’t as compelling. Still, the choices that Johnson makes with Knives Out best serve to improve the emotional involvement in the story. That quality seems like a rarity when it comes to murder mysteries, because it’s all about solving the crime and not necessarily how it affects the people on a more human level. It’s a problem to be solved, an equation on the board, and the process eliminates the variables systematically. Except with Knives Out, Johnson opens up the central figure of Marta in such a way that she becomes a symbolic figure for the immigrant experience in this country, fighting for dignity and recognition. The political commentary isn’t deep, and some of the shots feel a little cheap, but where Johnson succeeds is treating Marta as an empathetic stand-in for an often-invisible class.

A half-hour or so into the proceedings, Johnson makes a very conscious choice that changes how we understand the mystery and especially how we’re involved. I’ll be careful about spoilers but suffice to say we get some very crucial information that makes us look at the murder differently. For the first act it feels like it’s heading into a whodunnit with our clan of suspicious relatives, but it does something else, and I would argue something better. The problem with an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit is that the film is structured toward solving one central mystery and other important dramatic elements can fall by the wayside. Once you know who the killer is, was the journey to unmask them worth the twists and turns? Johnson instead lets the audience in on crucial information so that Knives Out alters, and the “who” is less important than how this information affects our relationship with a set of characters. It becomes less who is the killer and more will this culprit get caught and how will they beat the encroaching investigation. It transforms the entire structure, where instead of everything leading to one reveal, now it becomes a series of mini-panics and scrambles to stay ahead of a trap. This made me that much more personally involved and Johnson doubled the dramatic irony and tension of scenes. It becomes more a series of obfuscation where we’re involved, remembering what clues might be the ones that ultimately prove too inescapable. There is a downside to this approach, letting out some big reveals early also serves to downplay the vast majority of the supporting players. These people are all given motives and suspicions early on, but once Johnson unloads his twists too many of these same characters just fade into the background, their story use extinguished.

Another cheerful aspect of Knives Out is simply how much fun its cast is having, none more so than Craig (Spectre). I never really gave much thought to Craig as a comedic actor until 2017’s Logan Lucky, where he seemed to be unleashed, digging full bore into a charming and kooky supporting character, and it was downright joyful to watch him cut it up onscreen. He’s given such serious, macho roles but he really excels in the right comedic role, and he just has the time of his life playing Blanc. His southern-fried accent, penchant for theatricality, and garrulous nature all contribute to both tweak the idea of the clever inspector while playing into those clichés as well, steering into the fun we have with them. There were several moments I was left breathlessly cackling because of how Craig was delivering his lines with such relish. His explanation of the mystery being “a donut hole inside a donut hole” might be one of the best film scenes of the year. It also helps that Blanc has an affectionate working relationship with Marta, the heart of our movie, which makes this eccentric even more endearing to the audience. Just as Kenneth Branagh is continuing the adventures of his mustachioed private eye, I would happily watch another murder mystery featuring Blanc if Rian Johnson felt so inclined (pretty please).

The other actors do fine work even if many of them end up being underwritten figures either meant to be threatening suspects or cartoonish buffoons. Armas (Blade Runner 2047) is the lead actress and often the contrast for our rich elites and their out-of-touch perspectives; she’s the sounding board for their pettiness, acrimony, entitlement, and thinly-veiled racism. Armas just shines in the role as this figure who routinely makes the right choice even when it costs her. She’s a relatable, hard-working, kind character trying to keep her moral bearing in this high-stakes contest. Evans (Avengers: Endgame) is enjoyably smug and a welcome force to antagonize and puncture the egos of his fellow family members. Shannon (The Current War) has his effective moments of conveying menace and being laughably impotent. Every other actor does good work but too many of them barely make a blip. I forgot Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel and Oates) was in this movie from scene to scene. It’s a big cast so the goal is to make the most of their moments, and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, though some are far more broad.

Knives Out is a fun experience and further proof that when Rian Johnson really sets his mind on a certain genre, good and clever entertainments sprout. I want this man to tell the stories that excite him because there are still many more genres that could use the Rian Johnson stamp.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Halloween (2018)

It’s been 40 years since the original Halloween changed the horror industry. That is no overstatement. The low-budget 1978 movie by John Carpenter was a box-office sensation and ushered in a decade-plus of bloody slasher cinema. It’s even been 20 years since Halloween: H20, which was a 20-years-later sequel bringing original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis back into the mix. It’s now been another full H20 of time since that film, which makes me feel old, personally. Rob Zombie revived the franchise in 2007 with a back-story for methodical killing machine Michael Myers that nobody asked for (surprise: his family life was not great). Now an H40 later, director David Gordon Green and actor/writer Danny McBride have revived the franchise by going back to its roots, namely by ignoring all of the seven sequels and bringing back Curtis yet again. The new Halloween 2018 edition is a strange experience for fans. The first half feels like an elusive parody of the franchise, and then the second half drops comedic pretext and becomes much more serious and straightforward. As my pal Ben Bailey said, I can understand people hating this movie or loving it depending upon the half they focus on. This new Halloween ends on a high note but still could have been so much more.

In the decades since the original murders on Halloween, Laurie Strode (Curtis) is living a hermetic life. She’s never fully recovered from the events of her traumatic youth, and so has been preparing intensely for Michael’s eventual return. She rigorously trained her own daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), for self-defense to be a survivalist, locking her in the basement and training her with an array of firearms. Laurie thought she was drilling her daughter to be strong and a survivor, but the state had other interpretations, and so Karen was removed from her mother’s home and grew up resenting her oppressive, paranoid mom who took away her childhood. Karen has forbidden her own daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), from interacting with her crazy grandma, but both find ways. Michael Myers breaks loose from a prison transport and is heading back to Haddonfield with a mission to find and kill Laurie. They’re on a collision course H40 years in the making.

Let’s focus on that peculiar first half first. There were several points that made me shake my head and wonder if they were trying to be subtlety tongue-in-cheek or bad on purpose, and because of the pedigree behind the project, I had to give it the benefit of the doubt, but to what end? Why skewer horror tropes in a subtle way that could be construed as simply being bad instead? Why even do it for this franchise and then mostly drop it by the second half? There were several moments where I had to laugh and I wasn’t fully sure it was intended. This was my dilemma watching Halloween 2018 and I’m sure others will have a similar experience, scratching their heads and wondering why the movie is going the route that it is. Take for instance the horror trope of the bad babysitter. We have another situation where a nubile high school girl is going to invite her boyfriend over for some late-night action, nodding to the 1978 original film. Except the kid being babysat sees through everything and calls out his babysitter. He’s a street-smart kid who speaks with the voice of the knowing participant, like when he tells the boyfriend that he will die if he goes upstairs (spoiler alert: this kid is prophetic). There’s a string of kills that feel perfunctory, like the filmmakers have noticed that too much time has passed and have to satiate audience bloodlust to buy them another ten or so minutes of setup and characters. The kills themselves are lackluster. Even the gratuitous nudity is fleeting, confined to a quick flashback relating to young Michael Myers spying on his big sister (one of these days a slasher movie is going to be replete with wall-to-wall male nudity and no boobs just to mess with its target audience). There’s the trope of the ineffective police officer. After finding out Michael Myers is on the loose, an officer bluntly says, “What are we gonna do? Cancel Halloween?” The answer is, yes, you cancel the trick-or-treat activities for the town where this guy is clearly heading and you adequately warn the populace. You ask for assistance from anyone with a cell phone to broadcast the whereabouts of fugitive Michael Myers. The guy is pretty large and easy to spot, plus he’s not that traditionally fast. A citywide digital manhunt might have made for a more interesting movie premise with some genuine cultural commentary.

Or take for instance the stupid side characters meant to be fodder for the merciless kill count. The movie mysteriously gives these disposable characters little one-minute asides to present a glimpse of another story that we’re just not privy to. There’s the little kid who doesn’t want to go hunting and wants to be accepted by his father as a dancer. Okay, that’s a more interesting conflict than I thought, and then the dad immediately stops at the site of a bus crash with wandering chained inmates and says, “I’m gonna check this out, stay here.” It’s like Green and McBride gave us one page of characters from an indie drama and then had them smash back into idiotic plot devices making the most headache-inducing decisions. Another instance is a pair of cops debating over adult meals and bread. I appreciate the effort to try and flesh out the characters in a way that makes them feel more real, but then they have no larger bearing than being the next in a line of victims. There are other strange reminders that things just aren’t exact with the movie, at least for the first half. It’s this curiously overwrought, off sensation that keeps the audience from fully engaging, being told to possibly laugh with or at the movie.

I also think the film is fundamentally flawed in its approach, namely by elevating Laurie’s granddaughter as a co-lead. Allyson is too removed from the situation to give an interesting perspective, so she becomes any other teenage heroine we’ve seen in scores of slasher cinema likely meant to appeal to a teenage ticket-buying audience. The real conflict and the real story is the relationship between Laurie and her estranged adult daughter. There is so much drama there to unpack and the movie would be far better had the filmmakers eliminated the majority of the extraneous characters and focused on these two women and their decades-long acrimony. Get rid of Allyson’s boyfriend, who gets way too much screen time to simply be jettisoned without resolution (his lone purpose seems to be disposing of her cell phone). Get rid of his friend, a supposed “nice guy” with his own entitlement issues. Get rid of the babysitter friend and her dumb boyfriend. Get rid of the cops. Get rid of the Doctor Loomis prison doctor replacement, nicknamed the “new Loomis.” Get rid of them all, including Allyson. I would have preferred Allyson being murdered in the middle of the second act as a means of raising the stakes and forcing Laurie and Karen together again. This is very much a PTSD film about the long ramifications of trauma and how it affects multiple generations. I would have loved seeing that play out in the interplay between Laurie and the daughter that she pushed away in an attempt to save her life. There is so much palpable drama there that I’m genuinely shocked how little Karen figures in Halloween 2018. It’s such wasted dramatic potential as well as a better focal point for the movie.

It’s the second half, and in particular the third act, that saved the movie for me. The finale is everything fans would want, transforming into a surging siege thriller built around Laurie’s well-armed abode. It’s here where the movie becomes a multi-generational fight to the finish and the Strode women must team up to fight the man responsible for the long lingering trauma that has defined their lives in innumerable ways. It’s a climax that feels elevated by the pull of history, and it’s terrific and terrifically satisfying. Watching Laurie stalk the house in search of Michael Myers, going from room to room and locking them down, is the first actually nervous sequence in the film, benefiting from the investment we have in Laurie as an avenging figure. It’s during this sequence where Curtis (Freaky Friday) and Greer (Jurassic World) remind us what wonderful actors they can be. It made me wish for my more realized version of the two of them and their relationship even more. This is where Green (Stronger) also demonstrates his best sense of geography and escalation. Beforehand there are a few nifty tracking shots, paying homage to the opening of the original, but they’re self-contained, congratulatory moments. It’s the finale that made me realize what this movie should have been from its first frame. Lucky for Halloween 2018 it ends a high note (excluding the cliche post-credit revelation).

The newest Halloween movie has lit up the recent box-office charts and ensures this won’t be the last we see of Michael Myers and potentially old lady Laurie Strode. That’s kind of a shame because Green’s movie serves up a fitting finale for the series that could work as a capper for Laurie as a character and a survivor of trauma. But alas, the ringing of cash registers will be enough to extend the franchise and carry on more blood-letting adventures for the man in the William Shatner mask. Halloween 2018 starts off fairly rocky with a question concerning overall tone and intent. There’s humor that feels grafted on from other parallel reality versions of this story, somehow blurring together into a weird final product. The second half works much better than the first when it stops cracking wise and takes itself seriously enough to realize where the real drama lies, with Laurie facing down her demons and working together with the women of her family for maximum vengeance. Watching three generations of Strode women fighting together is a triumphant conclusion. It’s a shame that it won’t actually exist as a conclusion for that much longer.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Freaky Friday (2003)

The body-swapping movie was so en vogue a while back. It began with the original 70s film Freaky Friday (which co-starred Jodie Foster), and then the 80s hit and we had Fred Savage trading places with the likes of Judge Reinhold and Tom Hanks becoming Big. Heck, Disney even remade Freaky Friday in the early 90s starring Shelly Long (where have you gone, Shelly Long?). So will audiences welcome a second Freaky Friday remake when it appears that body-swapping films went the way of synth scores?

Tess Coleman (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a therapist with a long list of needy clients and access to about every portable electronic on the planet. She’s planning her wedding to Ryan (Mark Harmon), and as the details get crunched so does more and more stress. Her 15 year-old daughter Annabell (Lindsey Lohan) is the spunky and defiant teen that just can’t see eye-to-eye with mom. She’s tormented by a bratty younger brother and is trying to get her pop-punk band (which has three, count ‘em, three guitarists; a bit much I think) into competitions. Annabell is perturbed with her mom for remarrying so quickly after her father’’s death. Is there anyway these two can get along? They’’ll find out when they swap places due to a mystical Chinese fortune cookie.

Curtis is simply magnificent. She gets to have the most fun as the teen cutting loose in the adult body. She has her teen mannerisms and vocal tics down cold. Most of all, Curtis is having loads of fun and it becomes infectious, but not in the strained and superficial way Charlie’’s Angels 2 tried to convince you with. She turns in a splendid comedic performance utilizing her tomboy magnetism. She’s a pure joy to watch because she goes for broke with her performance. I can’t even think of what Annette Benning would have been like in the role. Ditto Kelly Osbourne as her daughter (they were originally cast).

Lohan is equally up to the plate. She has a natural flair for comedy and also gets Curtis’ stilted mannerisms down to a T. Her line delivery is great. Lohan was in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, but with Freaky Friday she’’s grown up into Avril Lavigne apparently. I also feel that Lohan has much more charisma and acting ability than in all of Hilary Duff.

The body-swapping gimmick is generally a straight forward path for the characters to literally walk in each other’s shoes and learn valuable lessons. But even so, I found myself getting choked up toward the end. It was surprising the amount you care for these two characters. Sure you know exactly how this whole enterprise will end, but exceptional acting and clever writing elevate the material.

Even more surprising is some risqué elements in the story. When Annabell is in her mother’s body, her hunky crush starts falling for mom. Of course the Disney folks don’t let this ever reach Mrs. Robinson territory before a tidy resolution. Even more risqué is the impending marriage of Tess. If the two ladies can’t reverse their body-swap, Tess’ daughter will be stuck in the grown-up body, the same one that will be married and, yikes, be engaged in all kinds of honeymoon activities. A 15 year-old marrying and having sex with a 50 year-old man? Creepy.

Some things of Freaky Friday feel tacky and out of place, like a near racist portrayal of nosy Chinese women. And it’’s never explained what Annabell’’s hunky crush does at her high school. He works there, but your guess is as good as mine for what exactly he does besides wandering the halls and making doe-eyes at young girls.

Freaky Friday is exuberant, poppy, charming and refreshingly fun. The acting from our two female leads is strong and the steadied direction from Mark Waters (The House of Yes) balances a quick pace with airy humor and pathos (and a strong soundtrack of pop-punk covers). I think I’m more surprised than anyone that the three Disney films released summer 2003 (Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean as well) were, by far, the three most sheer enjoyable films during the summer of 2003. Freaky indeed.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

So, what could be timelier than releasing a Halloween slasher film around… July? The plot (i.e. flimsy device to set up killing horny teenagers by) is something that you might actually see on MTV’s Fear show. Busta Rhymes is the head of an online entertainment company and has proposed a contest where the lucky few get to spend a night in the creakily and poorly lit house of serial killer Michael Myers. Their prize seems to be nothing more than the notoriety of being seen live on the net. College student Sara Moyer (Bianca Kajlich) is one of the lucky winners along with her stars-in-her-eyes gal pal and culinary obsessed friend (‘Save the Last Dance’’s Sean Patrick Thomas). Some other people get picked including the requisite smart girl and “weird” guy. And then there’’s the horn dog played by the insufferable Thomas Ian Nicholas of ‘American Pie’ fame. For some randomly selected process it’s kind of odd that three people who are all good friends got picked. Eh, oh well.

Anyway, the kids go exploring through the decrepit remains of the house with cameras strapped to their heads. Why the house wasn’’t knocked down after the first baker’’s dozen of murders is anyone’s guess. The kids try and look for any clues to explain the psychological nature of Mr. Hack-N-Slash. Michael Myers eventually makes a homecoming complete with his favorite set of cutlery and goes to town. People go missing and eventually the participants, with Busta at the wheel, figure out that this whole thing ain’’t make believe.

Now this movie could have been a lot worse, although the scene where Myers kills a cameraman with a tripod leg is dearly pushing it. Jamie Lee Curtis even shows up for about five minuets in the beginning before having an early confrontation with Myers. Let’’s just say that Curtis seemed to want out bad, and realistically who can blame her?

I realize there are certain leaps of logic when even entering into the darkened theater to take in a slasher flick, but ‘Halloween: Resurrection’ doesn’t just defy logic, it slaps you across the face with it like a cold fish. Myers is no super human entity, to the contrary, and should actually be pushing 50. But man, can he still jump out of walls needlessly like the Kool-Aid man. And can he still dangle from poles with one arm like a champ. Talk about upper body strength.

There’’s a scene toward the beginning of the film in the basement of the mental hospital Jamie Lee resides in. Two guards retreat down there and one of them stops to purchase a vending machine goodie while the other goes ahead only to meet his doom. The lone guard now timidly searches around the nearby laundry machines and discovers his colleague’s head inside the tumbling machine. If you look closely, and do some marginal thinking, you’ll find out that in order to achieve this spook Mr. Myers actually had to put money into the laundry machine. Talk about your commitment to fear.

This whole bloody ordeal is streamed live across the Internet with something like 50 camera choices. Now the Internet, if no one’ told you, is not exactly a small thing. Wouldn’’t someONE someWHERE be watching one of the camera angles where they DO happen to see the killings and phone someone? Maybe everyone in the world just has a dial-up modem. You must realize that this bare-bones cheesy reality show concept was likely from everyone making a movie as they went along. Take a quick look and you’ll see that this latest edition had about eight working titles, and at one point one of them was ‘Halloween: MichaelMyers.com’. At least we were spared some bad titles and just left with the super generic ‘Resurrection’ moniker.

Let’’s face it folks, the thrill of this whole thing is gone. Somewhere along the way, I’’m guessing ‘83, the whole concept just got stagnant and poorly executed. But now with the rise (or resurrection if you will) of the slasher genre in our post-irony world we get things like Jason in Space! And Michael Myers in an episode of MTV’s Fear! The draw is supposed to be the tightly wound suspense but, and maybe it’’s just me, where is the suspense when you could care less about the cheese-heads that are supposed to be the heroes and you KNOW what’’s going to happen to them?

Busta Rhymes, the thespian, is going to need more time to hone his craft. LL Cool J took up the rapper-come-Halloween-victim role in the last film, 1998’’s ‘Halloween: H20’ (which flagrantly did not take place underwater at all). To compare the acting prowess of the two rappers is like questioning the cooking ability of the Star Trek starship captains. It’s just very inconsequential and should never be asked rightfully. Tyra Banks is in this movie for some reason even though her scenes account for about a weekend of work. Everyone else in the cast is forgettable, even the cute Uma Thurman-looking redhead who has the most head-scratching nude scene in an underground crypt.

‘Halloween: Resurrection’ is sloppy, dumb and above all things not scary. It seems Michael Myers is the ultimate boogey man –  he’’s survived seven straight duds.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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