Knives Out (2019)

knives1With Knives Out, Rian Johnson returns to what he seems to do best- films full of artifice, manipulation both subtle and obvious, with plenty of twists and turns and entertainment. Its something that time travel movies (Looper (2012)), and whodunnit movies (Knives Out) are eminently suited to, especially when characters are your own creation and can act in whatever way best suits your movie and screenplay. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) a famous mystery writer can suddenly take a 180 in behaviour and it doesn’t ring untrue because we haven’t seen him establish other tendencies in three other movies.

It doesn’t, ahem, suit established franchises like Star Wars and its characters who have established mythology and behaviour. But lets not go into that again.

So yeah- Knives Out. Turns out its a pretty great movie, a hugely entertaining entry in the whodunnit genre offering a labyrinthine plot in which super-sleuth detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig obviously relishing the opportunity to chew up the scenery like never before) is tasked with solving a complex murder mystery when it appears that Harlan Thrombey’s suicide is not as it seems. The conceit of the movie is that we are let in on what actually happened and once ‘in’ on the mystery we can still be manipulated by the film as we may not actually know what we think we know.

Its an absurdly old-fashioned film, in surprising ways, gathering an old-fashioned parade of star actors in its cast, like some Hollywood studio picture of old (Plummer, Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collete, Ana de Armas headlining… a list of talent old and new, with a few character actors like M.Emmet Walsh and Frank Oz thrown in for good measure). It reminded me considerably of Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, a film I likewise enjoyed with its strong cast and old-Hollywood sensibilities. Paradoxically, of course, Knives Out is also very modern and feels very contemporary. Its a grand, almost intoxicating mix and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What in the world was Rian Johnson doing messing about in the Star Wars universe?

Knives Out is of course out on DVD and Blu-Ray, and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Halloween (2018)

hall1.jpgHalloween 2018 starts out really well. Its central conceit is that none of the myriad Halloween sequels/remakes/spin-offs or reboots ever happened, and that, 40 years later, this is the Part Two to the 1978 original’s Part One. A little like how the aborted Alien 5 would have pretended that Alien 3 & Alien: Resurrection never existed. In a similar way to films like Creed and BR2049, it treats the original material and mythology with some reverence and sincerity. It also allows, as the other films did, for the intervening years in the real world to be reflected by the passage of time in the movie world, adding some weight of pathos to the proceedings, allowing that sense of the weight of time for the characters to be shared by viewers. Maybe it just makes the nostalgia and recollection of the original feel more intense, and maybe it transfers those feelings to the new incarnation.

Of course, the central issue for Halloween 2018 is that its taking something that’s inherently very simple (the 1978 film is basically just a b-movie slasher/exploitation horror flick that has been endlessly copied ever since) and treating it very, very seriously. I’m a big fan of the original- John Carpenter was (is?) a consummate horror director with a keen eye for composition and skill in the editing room at maintaining tension and jumps and scares, but really, Halloween 1978 is not High Art, although it’s surely a classic of a genre not particularly renowned for high quality. Its simplicity is likely the key to its effectiveness and how well it has stood the test of time- and of course there is the brooding, relentless electronic score.

That score returns (and John Carpenter, on scoring duties here, with it), and it really helps Halloween 2018 feel authentic, in just the same way as BR2049 felt like a Blade Runner movie.  Something’s a little off though, with Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) not quite ringing true as she goes all Sarah Connor from T2, ready and waiting for Michael Myers to inevitably escape from his incarceration and run amok on another killing spree. This time she’s spent decades survivalist training and building Fortress Strode out in the woods into a safehouse for when Myers comes knocking. And of course, he does, complete with his iconic Captain Kirk mask, conveniently brought along by dim-witted journalists looking for a great story and getting undone by it, the mask apparently the trigger for The Shape to do what he does best on another Halloween night. There’s lots of graphic deaths and grisly gore here, a marked difference to the surprising restraint and suggestion which Carpenter crafted in the original- perhaps the most disturbing sign of just how much times have changed.

It seems churlish of me, really, to criticise this film as it was surprisingly sincere and effective in approach and how it was made, and the cast are great, the jumps are pretty great and the violence certainly made me wince- it works so well in so many ways. But I just didn’t buy Laurie going all Sarah Connor. It just makes it feel like a different, ‘wrong’ movie, like when James Cameron spun his Rambo-in-space yarn from Alien‘s ‘ten little indians’ horror film. Suddenly the tables are turned and the hunter becomes the hunted, and a crazy woman having an arsenal in her basement something to be applauded. Infact, thank God for that, because the doctors are crazier than Myers (I so sorely missed the great Donald Pleasence, whose presence seems to haunt the film like a vacant void) and the cops are more stupid and ineffective than ever. I suppose there’s a kind of movie myth that the world needs heroes like Sarah Connor rather than the original 1978 films nice girl next door; gun-toting heroines rather than terrified babysitters just trying to survive. I quite liked the post-traumatic, dysfunctional and rather unhinged Laurie that we first see in the film, but got rather bored by the killing machine survivalist she turns out to really be. Maybe the film is some kind of commentary on violence breeding violence and Myer’s bloody violence transforming 1978s nice girl next door babysitter into, well, another killer.  Maybe I’m just missing something.

John Carpenter October film..?

hall2Halloween (1978) – Blu-ray.

Well, October’s a fairly topical month to be watching horror films, and if you are going to watch a John Carpenter film in October, then odds are it’s going to be Halloween. Fortunately I had a copy of the blu-ray 35th anniversary steelbook sitting on my shelf in the unwatched pile, so not only did it tick off another October horror movie but it also got that infamous pile down by one.

There’s not much to be said about Halloween, its surely all been said already. Separated from its iconic status over the years and its franchise of endless sequels and reboots (which beyond Halloween 3 I have never watched), the 1978 film remains a great little horror movie. Its a small, lovingly-crafted, nicely acted, wonderfully scored horror film. Like Alien and Jaws, it’s a great film that begat many (often inferior) sequels but remains perfect all in itself. Its a lesson in tension and the implied threat of violence- indeed, in gore/violence terms it’s a very restrained film, and its also a masterclass in using the widescreen frame in its shots. Carpenters films -particularly his early ones- are beautifully composed, he really knew how to use the widescreen frame.

hall1Donald Pleasence- isn’t he wonderful in this? He was always a great talent that graced genre films like THX 1138 and Escape From New York, and channeled all sorts of Peter Cushing vibes in this, perhaps his most famous role as Dr Sam Loomis. He was the kind of actor we seldom see these days, but his twitchy, nervous bald Everyman convinced he’s hunting the Devil Incarnate (and who’s to say he isn’t?) is a joy here as he is in most everything, really. I miss him, and as with Peter Cushing, with his passing we as film-fans suffered a major loss that grows more pressing as the years pass.

One thing I will note regards this 35th Anniversary disc -and I don’t know if this appears on the films many other home editions- is a great little documentary, The Night She Came Home, which features Jamie Lee Curtis attending a Halloween/horror convention and spending a weekend meeting and greeting fans, the proceeds going to a hospital charity.  Apparently she distanced herself from horror fans and the Halloween fanbase for some years so her attendance here is a rare event and warranted this video record. Its a nice doc. I quite like this kind of thing, related to the film on the disc but not restricted to being a making-of talking heads piece, rather it’s a fly-on-the-wall look at the event, the actress, the fans who share their stories regards love of the film etc, and we see other actors and behind the camera staff from the film series. Its not often I really bother with extra features on discs these days (much to my shame) but this was a nice one that sucked me in immediately after watching the film.

 

 

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