Movie Review: Knives Out

The whodunit style of mysteries has aged out with a few popping up here and there that tend to try too hard to outsmart the audience or become completely convoluted, making the whole affair idiotic. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out defies the current scene of cutting down a long list of murder suspects in a clever fashion that is still easily accessible for dummies like myself.

A week after the birthday celebration and death of millionaire author, father, and grandfather Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who dies in a rather suspicious manner. Thus bringing in Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield), Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), and the famous private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) look into Harlan’s greedy, snobby family members. It twists and turns, confessions and lies are told, this is a wild ride every second.

Having a cluster of characters can get overwhelming to remember. Right away, everyone is introduced along with their possible motivations to kill Harlan and their relation to the head of the family. This is done without the cheese and avoids feeling like a barrage of information. To make this meeting of these despicable personalities even better, it weaves itself into the plot to keep everything moving forward rather than stopping just to set up everyone’s role.

Not only are each person memorable, but the starstudded cast highlights these people who I love to hate, with a couple of genuinely likable people like the investigators and Marta (Ana de Armas) as Harlan’s nurse, and friend. Having the ultra-liberal Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), the seemingly sensible, yet deceiving Linda Thrombey (Jamie Lee Curtis), the spoiled and lazy Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), the greedy Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), the heavily conservative Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), Marta’s one true friend outside of Harlan, Meg (Katherine Langford), and the alt-right teenager Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell) completes a roster of disgusting rich folk who have their own quirks that make them distinguishable. Having distinct personality traits tends to get forgotten at some point, but each attribute has substance to the narrative while fleshing out these scummy human beings.

One of the beautiful things about the astonishing casting comes from allowing everyone to flex their skills in ways people normally don’t see. Evans got to play a selfish snob contrasting against his time as Captain America, and Craig gets another chance to be a Southerner like he did in Logan Lucky, with some slippage of his British accent, he does an overall solid job especially with that drawl that he nails.

 

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(From left to right): Douchey Captain America wearing a sweater (Chris Evans), Southern James Bond (Daniel Craig), and sweet Marta (Ana de Armas) (Image via Lionsgate)

 

The chemistry felt disgustingly natural. I felt the disappointment that was universally directed towards Ransom, I believed in the political tension between Joni, Jacob, and Richard, and I adored every second of sweet Marta, the only nice person associated with this clan of rich monsters.

The set up is so rhythmically done to make for a smooth viewing experience. Later on, when reveals popped up, it did not feel like Johnson tried to outsmart me or overly explained. Everything had logic to it and connections that were strategically placed for the observant audience member to catch or grab people who missed out on clues to come in for another viewing.

The bread crumbs did get some clarity by the finale’s disclosure, but not all, making for an attractive second viewing to catch everything I missed. I know I must have as I am an idiot when it comes to these things. Despite my stupidity, Johnson does make a fair game out of figuring out the master criminal’s plan before all of the cards get revealed.

Plenty of balance was made for the humor and thrilling investigation. The funny moments hit hard, I still felt Johnson could have taken a few extra steps to plant more jokes and subtle details for more laughs. The drama and suspense never misses a beat and delivers the perfect amount throughout the time frame.

Johnson has his film running like a well-oiled machine. He meticulously drives down this road without a pothole or wrong turn to be found. Being both the sole writer and director gives him full control in the best way imaginable, with only one brief moment of a plot device used to move things along. Still, he manages to steer clear of tactics to get my eyes rolling at his narrative.

Two sides of commentary embedded itself under the surface, focusing on politics and social class. The insight into the problems within the far left and right was done objectively to make sure nobody got a pass, but it failed to be impactful in any way as it did not manage hit its target when it comes to the overall message. The outlook on evil wealthy people was done successfully; however, it is hard to believe in the credibility when most people working on the film, especially the main stars and the guy who directed a Star Wars movie, are pointing the finger at influential people with a lot of money.

Few films get made that I want to rewatch, yet Johnson has me wanting to keep Knives Out on repeat. Littered with well-thought-out details with some of the most brilliant actors in the business to bring it all to life. It could have made for a more poignant experience, but nonetheless, this is a blast from start to finish.

Now I just want a rated R sequel where all of these horrible people get brutally killed slasher movie style. Come on, Johnson, do it, you coward.

Score: 9/10

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Image via Lionsgate

 

 

Movie Review: 21 Bridges

Sometimes the trailer is better than the movie, that is the case here. 21 Bridges is a solid experience as a stay at home movie with a few friends to enjoy something entertaining and fairly exciting. No real substance, failures left and right, but an easy ride that goes quickly.

Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and Michael (Stephen James) rob a place hoping to get 30 kilos of cocaine; instead, they find 300 kilos (dun dun duuunnn) and must kill everyone on sight, mostly police officers. So, it is Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), a cop who is known for killing cop killers, to find these men and uncover the mystery of the additional loads of drugs, which he does by locking down Manhattan’s 21 bridges. This is as typical as you get with the twists, turns, and shootouts with some bland characters.

Boseman does a great job for a character who is thin but has a more in-depth background than anyone else. Ray and Michael get a brief, generic overview of their lives that does not make them sympathetic or even great villains. Other officers like Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) and Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) who are equally thin, but at least have performances that make it worthwhile.

Speaking of Simmons, one of the best actors in history. He is wasted completely. Same with a lot of the cast, but as the most prominent name here, I felt that anyone could have played that character. His little screen time is utilized to the best of his abilities, but I feel he needed more substance.

The entirety of Andre as a character was based on information in the few minutes about his dad’s death and an investigation on how many crooks he has killed in 10 years. While this lead to his motivations, plenty went under the radar to make this fictional person feel real or give me an ounce of empathy towards him.

A movie about seven police officers getting gunned down has some weight it carries on its shoulders. The violence, the grim shots of the crime scene, and the acting of everyone arriving at the massacre got me in the feels. The only issue comes from the faceless people serving the city of New York who got slaughtered as I just witnessed generic people in uniforms get killed without any real development of a single person involved, the killers included.

The story pushes forward for the sake of gunshots and drama. When it is hitting a stride, I felt compelled by what was happening, other times it felt melodramatic. Seriously, police on police or police vs. FBI is overly done in everything, nobody needs to see how it plays out in the same way it does on TV.

At times, things just start happening without much explanation. The police get information at times that do not make sense, while other times, it decides to let the audience know how things are moving along.

An even split comes as I got to see Officer Black Panther hunt down the men who killed his fellow men and women in blue and seeing the criminals attempt to flee out of the city. One cause of tension is to chase down murders while the other is both an escape and to solve who set them up to gather that extra cocaine with the mysterious arrival of the police, something must be going on here. Well, yeah, and it got shoved down my throat in the last few minutes to wrap up the story. It is an hour and 39-minute movie, it could have added some time on the clock to flesh things out more.

The action is entertaining because it is hard to go wrong with plenty of blood and lots of gunfire. No real choreography is done, unlike others in the genre. It is more about running, shooting, and nothing all that memorable except for how dark everything is. Why do so many American action movies keep everything in the dark with people wearing dark clothing? Get it together.

The many complications to filmmaking make this impossible to solve as to how this went so poorly. Instead of an exhilarating thriller, 21 Bridges is an enjoyable flick to turn on and turn your brain off. Director Brian Kirk did well despite mostly experience on the small screen with Game of Thrones and Dexter, meanwhile writers Mather Michael Carnahan from the terrible World War Z and Adam Mervis from The Philly Kid (what?) laid out bland characters and a narrative that should have been done more justice to give me some empathy as I watched things unfold. Maybe a more experienced staff of writers and some magic from some unsung hero on the crew could have saved this movie.

Score: 5/10

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Movie Review: JoJo Rabbit

As a Jewish person, I rarely get moved by Hollywood’s depiction of my people’s struggles, especially as almost all of them center on World War 2. Taika Waititi, a New Zealand native of Jewish descent, tells a story to make me proud by touching on the subject with grace, intelligence, and adding something new to the table. JoJo Rabbit is the most important film I have seen all year, and any sane, anti-Nazi must flood the theaters to support this hilarious and thought-provoking masterpiece.

Johannes Betzler or as his bullies call him, Jojo Rabbit (Roman Griffin Davis) is a troubled ten-year old Nazi during World War 2. He discovers his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) who manages to get a role in a movie that is not Asian, has kept a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the wall of his deceased sister’s bed room. The young boy’s world is flipped upside down, the only way to cope with bullies and his mother’s secret is to lean on his imaginary representation of his hero, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). On paper, this is as wacky as can be while having surprising punches to the gut for an emotional balance.

Davis, McKenzie, and Johansson all have a deep, complex chemistry. Davis’ protagonist feels torn as he loves his darling mother, but she is an anti-Nazi who is hiding a Jewish girl, crossing the line for young Jojo, and making me fall in love with her. Meanwhile, he develops a relationship with this girl he hates and knows his government demands for any information gets reported.

The trio of stars all put on stellar performances, especially Davis who steals scenes with some of his wholesome viewpoints, then turns sinister with his warped mindset on what people deserve to live happy lives and those who don’t.

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Tensions in the household between Jojo (Davis), imaginary Hitler (Waititi), and Rosie (Johansson). Via Fox Searchlight

Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) is the necessary cherry on top. The man is in charge of training children into soldiers for Hitler’s army. His drunk antics while having a deeper sense of what is happening in Germany allows him to rise above being a forgettable character.

Yorki (Archie Yates) is Jojo’s best friend. He brings out a cuteness that is welcome throughout every time he pops up on-screen. Damn Nazis making children irresistibly adorable.

Plenty of other talent went to waste, sadly. Klenzendorf’s right hand man and woman, Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) are almost forgettable. Allen gets plenty of screen time without any lines, making him someone who uses up more space than delivering any substance, a complete misuse of his abilities. Wilson is a surprise as I normally cannot stomach her usual roles, but the few moments with her are hysterical.

Waititi impressively directs and writes wonderfully while having a key role in most of the plot. His Hitler is hilarious and disturbingly charismatic while representing how prejudices grows within a society, especially when dealing with children. He takes on the controversial role of one of the most evil people in history and manages to be respectful to those who died, and a giant middle finger to Nazi scum.

Diving into Nazi Germany is a beautifully haunting scene. The architecture and landscapes are eye candy, but the swastikas and hanging victims cause a weird feeling of regret to enjoy the delightful side of the visuals.

Balancing tone when making a comedy out of one of the worst times in human history. The humor lands on its feet every time to impress the most grudging Olympic judges. The drama knows when to step in to remind viewers of its important message and that the Holocaust is a tragedy. The two have a symbiotic relationship that works perfectly.

The obvious, satirical anti-hate point is made even before sitting in a theater. Waititi goes deeper as war does more harm than what’s on the surface. His focus on the damages it can do to a child’s innocence and the systemic side of prejudices makes for a hardy meal to digest.

Jojo Rabbit flies by and is something that can easily be rewatched a countless amount of times. Despite some German accents that fall out into other countries, the acting is top-notch. I cannot compare Waititi’s film and his inspiration, the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, but it sure has sold me on putting that on my reading list after watching one of the best films of the year.

Score: 9/10

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Images via Fox Searchlight

Movie Review: Zombieland: Double Tap

10 years has kept me desperately waiting for a sequel to the 2009 hit Zombieland. As an avid fan of the brain eaters, the twist on the genre hooked me. Double Tap reunites the original cast along with the first film’s writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, along with including Godzilla writer Dave Callaham, this sweet reunion manages both as enjoyable as the classic while being a pointless return.

After settling in the White House and having fun for a while, the quartet of survivors, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and the not so little Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) are split into pieces of a Twinkie as the young one wants to branch off to find love like Wichita and Columbus have found. She runs off with a stoner pacifist named Berkeley (Avan Jogia), maybe too familiar of territory when her and Wichita ran away in the final act of the previous adventure, and the crew must get her back before this new way of surviving without killing gets her turned into a zombie.

Revisiting these characters makes it worth going back despite the lackluster story. The chemistry of the group along with their memorable personalities makes every moment funny and heartwarming when things get real during their fun times in the apocalypse.

New characters become a hit or a miss like Berkeley is not the strongest, but he brings something new to the table and same with Madison (Zoey Deutch) as the typical valley girl bimbo who miraculously survives the world ending epidemic. Nevada (Rosario Dawson) felt underutilized, maybe it is the crush I have for Dawson deep down inside of me, but I adored her addition even with the little amount of screen time. Others like Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch) were gimmicks to play off of Tallahassee and Columbus’ personalities and dynamic, without giving any substance to the story.

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Columbus and Wichita realizing their annoying, older partner has a younger twin. Via Sony Pictures

As Reese and Wernick grew as writers with Deadpool, along with adding Callaham to the mix, the comedy had the same distinct style as the first with Columbus’ rules, creative ways to kill the undead, and nods to the past. The decade of space between the films did not hinder the tone. I spent some time eye rolling as some of the self-references were painfully on the nose rather than finding a more creative way to bring back iconic jokes.

Going bigger certainly helped out as the robust action had better choreography that lead to more intense battles. I felt the danger more so here, especially with the introduction of Left 4 Dead styled zombie types.

More elaborate set pieces and locations made for a better change of scenery. The time in the White House was a blast along with the road trip to find grown up Little Rock. It makes for a more visually pleasing world to look at as buildings fall apart and some places get built for shelter except for some embarrassing CGI that instead of fleshing out the world, I saw laughable green screened backgrounds and objects added in by computer when it should have a physical prop.

Double Tap suffers mostly because of its predecessor. Gags and jokes had me losing my mind as I laughed continuously throughout, but nothing is as memorable as some of the standout bits from 2009. At least Ruben Fleischer redeems himself as a director after Venom, but could not reach the bar set by himself and his writers.

Score: 7/10

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Images via Sony Pictures

 

 

Movie Review: El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) conclusion to his arc was flawless, but his partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was left with an ambiguous end as he drove into the darkness. I never thought I needed a revisit, but El Camino delivers the proper end to the second half of one of the greatest shows ever produced.

The DEA along with everyone else in law enforcement are on the hunt for Jesse. He needs cash and a way out-of-state. Following him on this lonely mission is grim and intense, matching many of the emotions felt during the show’s run, yet it feels more intimate. The road he goes down to finish things off rounds out his arc the way it should have done in 2013.

Past characters pop in and out with a few surprises outside of the reveals made in trailers. Skinny Peter (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt L. Jones) make the biggest splash as that comedic relief along with being that heartwarming duo that help out their old friend. Flashbacks to Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Jesse’s relationship during his time in a hole gave a new level to what Jesse had gone through when captured, while making Todd a more complex personality.

Speaking of flashbacks, the lone protagonist consistently looks back during his time with Walter or his crew of captors. New scenes in between the events of Breaking Bad gave a better insight to beloved characters I have known and loved years ago. Some of the reminiscing scenes tie into Jesse’s thoughts along with the narrative’s progression, but others felt unnecessary in length or the substance brought to the table all together.

All of the actors slip right back into the roles with ease. Paul goes further into the depths of Jesse’s anguish as he tries to climb out of the rut he has emotionally been thrown into. The bar was set high during his time on Breaking Bad, and he surpasses even his highest achievements that he had established on the series.

Marshall Adams’ cinematic eye made for beautiful environments on this heartbreaking journey. The world around Jesse reflected who he is and where he is going.

Vince Gilligan did not miss a beat in both direction and writing. It feels like his breakout hit while still bringing new ideas to avoid feeling like a grab at nostalgia. El Camino has a necessity that it provides to this world and it is given respect.

A few scenes adding to the length when looking to the past does not hold down a trip back to one of my favorite shows. I have not seen Better Call Saul as I have felt complete in my time with those characters, but this goes into a place that I did not realize how much I needed. It might have come six years later, but I am glad I got to spend time with Jesse on his sendoff.

Score: 10/10

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Image via Netflix

Movie Review: Joker

I had mixed feeling leading up to Todd Phillips’ origin story for the iconic comic book baddie, Joker. My worries were due to his work with the Hangover trilogy, but the trailers gave me more confidence. Once the credits rolled I knew this is a redefining moment for the highly saturated genre, it is brilliant in every sense of the word.

Gotham is going down hill with its crime, making a depressed Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) spiral down further into the depths of his own darkness. All he has is his job as a clown, which he is not so good at being, and his beloved mother Penny (Frances Conroy), a less compelling role like everyone else compared to Arthur. After being beat down, it is time for him to get up and give himself a new way of life, the sinister force that will terrorize the city.

Phoenix carries the narrative on his back. His acting is both chilling and complex with the emotions he displays. His emaciated body and twisted take on Batman’s arch nemesis’ laugh stands out away from any other actor who has been given the honor to play this role.

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Supporting actors like Conroy, Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a TV star that Arthur admires, and his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) hold their own with strong performances. The characters themselves are not too compelling as they are building blocks for Arthur, except for De Niro’s charming personality.

Giving a name and face outside of the makeup dangerously elevates the classic villain, but it was done justice. Immediately establishing who he is along with his arc works with this grounded  depiction of Gotham. It is not just a study on him because Joker is more than just one man. I hope for a universe that involves this version instead of the Warped Tour attendee that got time on the big screen in Suicide Squad.

This mature drama is refreshing when the genre is full of epic battles and world ending stakes. Some moments of levity help not go too dark, but at times it is confusing if it was intentional or not to bring in humor, making it more awkward than funny. DC has been criticized for its darkness, but the proper execution feels like an adult film rather than acting like an edgy teenager.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Arrival, Sicario, Chernobyl) created a score with her team that set an atmospheric, somber tone. The limited orchestra of low strings heightened the soon to be criminal’s struggles. As his arc moves, the music follows him for an epic conclusion.

Costume designer Mark Bridges (Inherent Vice, Fifty Shades of Grey), art director Laura Ballinger (The Fighter, The Greatest Showman), set decorator Kris Moran (The Wolf of Wall Street), and Lawrence Sher’s (Hangover trilogy, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) cinematography work makes this into a gorgeous piece of cinema. Balance of color along with a new design for the Joker’s outfit gives a new outlook on both the character and the city that has been put to the big screen so many times before.

Joker is a moody, psychological look into one of DC’s best creations. The ending should have been cut a few minutes early as one shot would have been the ultimate conclusion, then the filmmakers could step on the brakes of this slow vehicle. My hope is for more Phoenix as Joker and everyone to take note of what this movie gets right to freshen up the genre.

Score: 9/10

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Images via Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: IT Chapter 2

The 2017 reboot of Stephen King’s classic was top notch. One of my favorite horror movies of all time, so the second had a lot to do to succeed. IT Chapter 2 goes above and beyond in every aspect that made Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) first run with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) so special.

27 years later and some of the Losers’ Club have varying degrees of how they have moved on from childhood traumas from bullies, parents, and a shapeshifting entity that eats children, you know, the usual things we all go through. After disappearances and murders in their hometown of Derry, Maine, leading Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) to talk to Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone), and Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) to come home to defeat their worst nightmare. He has a plan, a ritual that sounds like it comes straight from a role-playing game that his group of old friends must complete, making for a more epic adventure than a terrifying experience like the film’s predecessor.

Casting the adult counterparts for the already superb teenage actors, but it all worked out flawlessly due to fleshing everyone out more equally and having wonderful chemistry. Hader matches the comedic power of Finn Wolfhard, Chastain looks and acts the part of an older Sophia Lillis, Bean looks like he might be from the future with his resembling features to Wyatt Olef, McAvoy grows Bill as a character after the excellent establishment from Jaeden Martell, Ryan expands on Jeremy Ray Taylor’s charming innocence, Ransone reaches the bar set from Jack Dylan Grazer, and the additional screen time helps Hanlon develop Chosen Jacobs’ role. The middle school characters were irresistibly compelling before, and getting older made them better.

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From left to right: Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), Richie (Bill Hader), Bill (James McAvoy), Bev (Jessica Chastain), and Ben (Jay Ryan). Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

A troubling symptom that horror cannot get away from is having characters do illogical actions. This can be done the right way, most of the time, it was as the friends had to make rash decisions because of fear. At other times, things were done for the sake of drama or scares that felt unnecessary, but thankfully it was not too abundant.

Despite being almost three hours, not much of the spotlight was on Skarsgard’s antagonist. His moments were everything I wanted from his creeping performance, but this was less his story. The film is about facing fears, defeating childhood trauma, and relationships, which is beautifully executed to the point I almost cried at the end, but it leaves the big ba monster in the dark too often.

The long length of time did not feel drawn out. The time used wisely established where the Losers were at in their lives from successful businessmen to adults who keep bad habits from their childhood. The plot moved at an acceptable pace to balance character spotlights, scares, and the narrative of killing the evil clown. Some parts moved too fast, but I was able to cope and move on as I was going to be sitting in that theater for a while.

More texture was added to the tone for refreshing and familiar emotions. Additional humor made for laugh out loud scenes, mostly due to Hader being a genius. The comedy kept Chapter 2 from becoming overly depressing or regularly inducing anxiety from its tense beats. The new ideas implemented gave this new life while still having everything that I adored from the first chapter.

The scares took a back seat for comedy and drama, but when it happened, the creativity matched the 2017 entry. Psychological and gory visuals gave a variety of different horror flavors. Better ideas were carried out for greater originality while still having some basic concepts that get put out in every film in this genre.

A bigger budget made for a prettier spectacle. Flashier lights gave this a broader color palette. Many of the scariest moments on sunny days that allow for highlighting the trippy tricks that Pennywise has up his sleeve.

IT Chapter 2 will not make time fly or fix all of the issues from the first film, but it is the ultimate sequel I wanted. What I enjoyed so much before was the characters, and better organization gave every delightful personality a time to shine, for both the kids and adults with plenty of flashbacks. Pros and cons can go back and forth between the two movies, but I have to give the award to this grand finale.

Score: 9/10

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Image via Warner Bros. Pictures