Film Review: “Knives Out”

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes

About two years ago, around this time of year, I was criticizing Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” as being stuffy and unimaginative despite the ensemble cast and production budget. Unlike that dreary and forgettable whodunit, “Knives Out” is a welcome addition to the murder-mystery genre.

The mystery in “Knives Out” is spun around the apparent suicide of the Thrombley family patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer). The suspects are the surrounding Thrombley family, made up of a cast characters played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and others. Each of the Thrombley’s has their own selfish reasons or reasoning for wanting to kill Harlan. Simply put, they’re leeches. But the police aren’t the ones looking into the possibility of foul play. Private detective, Benoit Blanc (Craig), was tasked with finding the killer after a mysterious letter arrived at his door. So he enlists the help of Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Armas), to track down clues and interview family members.

Just like “Clue” and “Murder by Death” before it, “Knives Out” works first as a comedy, and second as a mystery that twists and turns until the very end. Even when you think you’ve figured it all out, the movie manages to unravel a little bit more. If I was to nitpick, just a wee bit, it’d be that the movie reveals a little bit too much, too early on, and takes its time revealing a few more of the twists. However, the comedy masks a lot of its pacing flaws. The silliness of the characters is inevitably undermined by their ulterior motives by the end of the film. The final frame serves as an unmasking for the film’s allegory, which writer/director Rian Johnson has carefully pieced together over the course of a few hours.

“Knives Out,” a modern throwback, works best when it’s delivering one-liners and verbal gut punches during family squabbles. The material moves so fast, that I’m certain there will be some people giving this a re-watch to see what kind of jokes they missed out on. “Knives Out” is engaging, fun, and clever, and what more could you want from a whodunit?

Film Review: “The Shape of Water”

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
Directed By: Guillermo Del Toro
Rated: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Guillermo Del Toro is known for his love of monsters, creatures, ghosts, ghouls and the macabre beauty of it all. That love takes on a new meaning in “The Shape of Water,” where Del Toro conjures up classic cinema vibes with the setting, cast, and trademark visuals throughout his latest film. After years of scaring and provoking thought, it appears that Del Toro is instead reflecting, not only on himself, but his influences.

On paper, “The Shape of Water” is a curious, if not off-putting, love story between Elisa (Hawkins), a woman made mute by an injury, and an amphibious creature, played by Doug Jones under heavy makeup. Elisa first spots the creature at her janitorial job at a secretive research center. She comes across the creature as it arrives at the base, after recently being captured in a South American river where it was worshipped as a God by local tribesmen. Curiosity gets the best of Elisa as she sneaks in to see the creature first-hand. She quickly becomes enchanted, spending her lunch breaks in the enclosure, to feed it hard boiled eggs and share her love of music with it.

The love story, as usual, has a deeper meaning that speaks volumes, but is unappealing to those who will simply see something else that’s a little too much for average audiences. It’s not necessarily a complaint of mine, but it is a scenario that’s a little rough to warm up to. It also lacks the benefit of necessary build-up and wordless romance that might not be Del Toro’s strong suit. If you can get past the strange romantic entanglement, there is a lot of beauty in Del Toro’s script.

Beyond that, there’s the evil in the world that inadvertently tries to tear the two apart. The creature’s captor, Richard (Shannon), is a dangerous control freak. He takes out his own insecurities on employees and looks to kill what he does not understand. His inflated sense of self-importance is compensation, but he’s looking to attain more power and work his way into the hierarchy of the military and other powers to be.

Because this takes place in the 60’s, there a sense that Elisa and the creature represent the counterculture to Shannon’s violent character. Very few people aid Shannon in his pursuit, while those around Elisa go against their common sense and assist in her attempts to break the creature out of confinement. It’s once the creature is out and Elisa gets to spend some alone time that I begin to feel conflicted about the attitude and direction of the film.

Del Toro’s “Beauty and the Beast” take for adults hits and misses in its third act when everything comes crashing together. There are signs of a cinematic masterpiece in “Shape of Water,” but too often Del Toro seems to cheapen the message about love for those without a voice and those who are alien in a “normal” society. It’s a tricky juggling act that would have been tough for any director, but Del Toro does make it work with his gothic imagery and performances from his cast. “The Shape of Water” should be a stronger film under Del Toro’s direction, but it’s still an emotionally resonant film.

Film Review: “Nocturnal Animals”

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon
Directed By: Tom Ford
Rated: R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Focus Features

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

“Nocturnal Animals” requires two viewings, if you can stomach it that is. Tom Ford’s vision is a messy movie, with a fuzzy meaning. But despite the juggling act, the disorderliness feels intentional. “Nocturnal Animals” is two movies for the price of one, with each tale telling and revealing more about the other. “Nocturnal Animals” delivers a slow reveal that will surely dissatisfy many, while simply turning off others in the first few minutes, but please those who hang with it and scratch beneath the surface.

Despite owning a successful LA art gallery, Susan (Adams) seems indifferent to life. She’s married to an unfaithful man, her child has left the coop and she inhabits an artificial home full of artificial art pieces. Something stirs her from her humdrum existence, her ex-husband’s novel. Edward (Gyllenhaal) has sent her a copy of his book and inquired through email about possibly meeting for dinner to catch up. The novel, “Nocturnal Animals,” is not only dedicated to her, but she tells everyone that Edward had always referred to her as a nocturnal animal.

When she flips to page one, the movie then dives into the context of the book. It begins with a family being driven off the road in rural Texas by dangerous men and turns into a husband/father trying to make sense of a horrifying night that has turned into a lifelong nightmare. The raw viciousness and violence of Edward’s book seems to startle and upset Susan. But it’s not the visceral nature of the book; it’s how much of it mirrors their old relationship.

You could almost call “Nocturnal Animals” a wonderful ensemble, featuring actors and actresses who have won or been nominated for an award, or those who certainly should. Gyllenhaal does double duty as Edward in Susan’s life and as the heartbroken, vengeful father in the book. Accompanying him and Adams are Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Ilsa Fisher, and others. The visual storying telling between the fictional book and the reality are clear, but it’s when the two begin to reflect each other metaphorically and physically, that it becomes blurry.

The neo-western style of the book story never really meshes well with the simmering thriller happening in the real world, but the dramatic and tonal shifts help break up any monotony that might creep in because on their own accord, each story isn’t stellar. It’s only interesting when both are slapped together, with similar symbols bleeding through the lines of reality. Director Tom Ford deserves all the credit in the world for keeping the wild swings in storytelling and writing in check, without derailing the movie entirely.

However, the commentary on Susan and Edward’s formal love life is suspiciously misogynistic. Understandably, Edward is the one commenting on it and Susan is the one merely reacting to his comparisons. But it offers a one-sided narrative of what once was, painting Susan in a broad and negative light. Although that could be its inherent intention, depending on how you want to view the ending to the movie, and the book within the movie, I can help but wonder about it’s reception of the roles were changed.

“Nocturnal Animals” will certainly draw comparisons to some of David Lynch’s more bizarre offerings, but Ford’s style isn’t charmingly oddball enough. It’s intentionally dark content and bizarre imagery is more likely to turn-off a regular audience than dazzle. But it’s a compelling movie to watch and delight to discuss with those who have managed to stomach it. Ford, the fashion designer turned director, is a unique talent worth keeping an eye on.