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. 

Midnight Special (2016)

midnite1.jpg2016.61: Midnight Special (Amazon VOD)

Like Super 8 a few years back, Midnight Special displays its inspirations clearly- it’s very much kin to Steven Spielberg’s seminal CE3K and ET, and also John Carpenter’s Starman. Indeed, while it often looks like a Spielberg film it also feels like a Carpenter film because of an electronic score by David Wingo that sounds very much from a Carpenter film of that period. Midnight Special just overflows with this sense of being an artifact from circa 1977-1982, the danger naturally being this can bring to mind better movies. I guess it shares common ground with so many other cinema-referential films of late, such as Super 8 – films harking back to the films that influenced current film-makers. A generational thing then, and further sign I’m getting old when so much of the films I grew up with winds up in ‘new’ films, even the ones that aren’t reboots?

That being said, Midnight Special is, on a whole, quite superior to stuff like Super 8. For one thing it doesn’t feel so reverential, and does try to do something new even though it eventually falters. The first half of the film is its strongest, with the mystery holding the most attention; two adults are on the run having kidnapped a young boy, and they are being chased by both Government forces and agents of a strange religious cult. Having pretty much been dropped into the middle of a chase movie with X-Files undertones, its fun trying to unravel the backgrounds of the characters and what is really going on and why. Inevitably the film can’t really maintain the mystery and its reveals aren’t as imaginative or original as one would hope. That said, it’s a great thriller for most of its running time even if the conclusion leaves us asking more questions than is perhaps healthy for what I believe is a standalone picture.

The cast is pretty great, except, unfortunately, for Kirsten Dunst. She plays the childs mother, Sarah, and there really isn’t any conviction in her portrayal of motherhood, or indeed any chemistry between her and the child’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon)- it is a huge vacuum that the film doesn’t really recover from. I don’t know if it’s simply the script at fault (in Dunst’s defence, it is a fairly underwritten part) or miscasting, but somethings wrong and the film suffers for it, losing the emotional core that, say, ET had. Other than that, there is plenty to recommend in this film- a fairly low budget affair (something like just $20 million) it’s certainly more imaginative and entertaining than most of this summers blockbuster releases.

 

Zod! The Magic of the Movies!

Yesterday I watched part of the bonus disc packaged with the Man of Steel * Blu-ray issued in America. Its a huge three-hour presentation of the movie with added interviews, behind the scenes shots, production art, etc displayed alongside or in place of the actual movie as it runs (its actually half-hour longer than the movie). Its mightily impressive, I just wish it accompanied a better movie… but anyway, I digress. So I was watching, oh, the first twenty minutes, and yes, its lots and lots of green screen. Early on there’s the scene where General Zod and his dastardly cohorts blast their way into the Krypton Council Chamber (or whatever it is), and the actor who plays Zod, Michael Shannon pops up in a sub-window and talks a little about playing Zod, while another pop-up window alongside shows the scene playing in-movie being shot. And he’s being filmed wearing a motion-capture suit. Shannon admits he found it odd playing this big mean villain whilst wearing something that looks like PJs crossed with a leotard. But I’m just watching this all gob-smacked. That big armoured suit he wears pretty much throughout the movie was cg?

General_Zod_Man_of_SteelA few things immediately sprung to mind. Firstly, wow, that’s mighty impressive from a technological standpoint. I’d watched the film at the cinema and would have never guessed that the suit wasn’t real, aint those fx boys clever? Second, that’s a hell of a way of blowing/wasting  a big budget. I mean, wouldn’t a real-life (albeit maybe toned-down) costume have sufficed? I dare say all those fx shots for that suit of armour alone would have funded any number of Dredd sequels, for a start.

The thought struck me that these ‘blockbusters’ are getting so huge and bloated with unnecessary waste. Its not as if spending a fortune on cg armour/costumes made the film any better, is it? Little wonder so much of the latter portions of the film struck me as looking like a cg cartoon, there’s more cg there than I thought. Sure, its impressive, I suppose, but good grief, these films need some restraint, not an excuse to blow more money on needless fx shots. Doesn’t anybody say, hey guys, I know we can do that, but do we NEED to do that?

"This movie's stupid!"
“Zod! This movie’s stupid!”

I haven’t seen anymore of that bonus disc yet. I’m almost afraid to. These days I can’t watch BBC News 24 without venting my ire at the screen for Auntie Beeb wasting tax-payers money sending journos to every slightest ‘event’ (hey, a member of the Royal Family has stubbed his/her toe, rush a filmcrew to the Palace and camp it there for live updates every fifteen minutes for 24 hours), without me now losing it watching movies. At least the Blu-ray of  Star Trek Into Darkness  didn’t add insult to injury by having a similar ‘How We Blew Millions’ feature (although I think its available as a download on iTunes).

*And before you mention it, yes, I need my head examining buying this movie. But I was keen on seeing the making-of/Maximum Stupid Movie Mode thing and its only on the US copy. And besides, it simply has to be better than the monstrously stupid-sounding  Batman vs Superman thing that’s going to follow this. Hollywood seems hellbent on making its films look good by making something even crappier straight after.

(oh, and I’ve decided I’m going to use this accompanying picture of Ben watching the telly with the ‘Zod… ‘ caption every time I watch a really stupid movie. )