If writer/director Rian Johnson prepared your holiday turkey, it would be overstuffed, but the cinematic chef gleefully loads up his wily whodunit Knives Out (B) with impeccable ingredients: a cavalcade of sassy stars, a labyrinthine manor, cunning clues, red herrings, mousetraps and sinewy twists. A spry Daniel Craig (with a vexing Foghorn Leghorn accent) and relatable Cuban actress Ana de Armas are the closest things to protagonists in the sprawling ensemble as detective and central caretaker, respectively. This duo provides sympathetic touchstones in a universe of rather despicable suspects. Everyone in the story has a connection to a mystery novelist patriarch played by Christopher Plummer, and they all display sharp edges in oddball humor and acerbic dialogue. Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Chris Evans and Michael Shannon are among the prominent players. Although it would have been charitable to accomplish the story with fewer partisan jabs, less projectile vomiting and more character interactions, it is efficient in its intent and durable for its duration. It’s a rare entry into a fun genre by a filmmaker who may have met his match.
Transplanting a British miniseries to modern day Chicago centering on a quarter of women completing a heist started by their late husbands, Steve McQueen’s mystery/drama Widows (A) is juicy, layered, intense and phenomenal. Buoyed by an excellent Viola Davis as the central protagonist (her late husband is inspired casting: Liam Neeson) and boasting an across the board fabulous ensemble, the film roars with thrilling intensity while always keeping the characters grounded in reality. McQueen organically laces into his vigilante milieu themes of racial and gender inequality and empowerment, cycles of crime and violence and the tenuous ecosystem of gangland and political turf. The film is ultimately a fugue on who’s playing one another in an elaborate urban powder-keg, with subtle shifts and surprises keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. Despite topicality, it’s extremely entertaining. Kudos to Elizabeth Debicki, who shape shifts in a complex emotional role as an abused woman discovering her power, and Daniel Kaluuya who plays against type as a cold-blooded criminal. Robert Duvall and Colin Ferrell are also superb as a father-son political dynasty brokering alliances in a corrupt neighborhood. The film is not for the faint of heart and doesn’t pull back from showing the evil that men do. Expect to see Viola Davis honored for characteristically superb work – she’s daring, direct and dramatically controlled – and it would be wonderful if McQueen’s thoughtful female-led thriller catches fire at the box office and awards season.
Note: This film will be available in wide release theatrically November 16, 2018.
This is the gripping “found movie” for a perpetually plugged-in world. In Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (B+), the protagonist father portrayed wonderfully by John Cho often contemplates sessions further down the web’s wormhole while resisting the notion to simply shut down. Grounding this mystery thriller, Cho’s desktop pop ups the ante – online, engaged and amplified – and embarks on an emotional arch of triumphant connection over isolation. The propulsive plot about the disappearance of his daughter grants viewers a tense window into his soul and mindset, while the film’s action takes place largely in the virtual environment of computer and surveillance screens. It’s the Who Framed Roger Rabbit of social media tropes: humans mixing with fetching FaceTimes, charming chatbots, brilliant browsers and suspenseful streams. Among the emojified denizens and avatars, you almost suspect a cameo from an animated paperclip! Chaganty’s inventive high-tech hub is ideal for clue reveals stashed in the cache: flashbacks by archived selfie confessionals, public actions by viral video and forensic breadcrumbs dotting the underbelly of the social graph. The realistic interfaces are sturdy supporting performers, as is Debra Messing playing nicely against type as a hard-driving detective. While the film’s procedural formula doesn’t always measure up to its creative format, the #SearchingMovie is well worth discovery.
A nihilistic murder mystery posing in pretensions and occasional droll droplets of gallows humor, Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds (C-) neglects consistent character development in the service of a nifty premise. Olivia Cooke is a revelation as a young woman incapable of emotion, and she becomes the perfect partner in crime for a differently depressed rich teen (Anya Taylor-Joy, also good in her role) motivated to slay a wicked stepfather. The men in the film don’t stand a chance, especially Paul Sparks as the diabolical daddy who doesn’t get to do enough evil to justify the trouble. The late Anton Yelchin is charismatic in an underwritten role as a would-be third conspirator. The set-up is elegant, but ultimately the structure crumbles under the women’s feet while they continue to act the hell out of their parts. Like the central character, the film is not funny or absorbing enough to justify getting to know it.
Welcome to candyland for moviegoers who won’t be sorry for taking a risk on a new film that blends clue upon clue with sly takes on the game of life. Although it lingers a beat longer than it should, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night (B+) arrives on the top of the leader board for the genre of comedy mysteries. Along with clever plotting and lots of genuine laughs, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make a delightful romantic duo as a highly competitive and witty couple with overarching anxiety blocking their ability to conceive. When Bateman’s larger than life brother (a funny Kyle Chandler) crashes a weekly charades party with a real-life murder mystery, the stakes just get higher and higher. Jesse Plemons is hilarious as a mopey cop next door who keeps being left out of the festivities. Billy Magnussen and Lamorne Morris are also a riot as supporting players in the shenanigans. Except for a few off-color jokes, it’s largely good old-fashioned fun. Roll the dice and check it out.
Movie remakes can be a bit like theatrical revivals when there’s a corker of a story to tell with a thrilling new ensemble, but Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express (B-) with the actor/director in the top-billed role as the intrepid Detective Poirot doesn’t add or enrich the story enough in any remarkable ways to make it essential. That said, this fourth adaptation of the Agatha Christie work is a handsomely mounted whodunit with some nice bits from the likes of Daisy Ripley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp and others. On the aggregate, however, none of the sprawling cast members gets anything close to the scenery-chewing delights that Branagh does. As an actor, he’s the film’s liveliest and most eccentric surprise, as he searches for the clues of a world out of its normal order. As director, he makes ample use of digital technologies to glide in, out of and around the titular locomotive, including some fun overhead shots of train car cabins. Ultimately the plot loses steam, and the novelty wears off. Although it’s heartening to have a new-Hollywood entry into the mystery genre, the best part of Branagh’s slick schtick is his old-fashioned performance.
Justin Kelly’s King Cobra (D+) is a mystery thriller with little mystery or thrills. Set in 2006 as YouTube was coming of age, the film purports to bring a Boogie Nights type allure to the goings-on behind the firewall of an adult film industry in transition. Newcomer Garrett Clayton plays a fresh faced Californian who gets swept up into the porn industry by a closeted amateur producer who makes movies out of his innocuous suburban home, played by Christian Slater. Meanwhile, James Franco and Keegan Allen play rival provocateurs who seem to be acting in a completely different movie universe, like Magenta and Columbia with a death wish. Kelly clearly believes his work is sexier and edgier than it turns out to be. Aside from Slater’s occasionally unhinged performance, there’s very little worth watching here. Fans of Clayton, who is featured in NBC’s Hairspray Live, will get the eye candy they seek but little substance.
Told with sincerity and cerebral grace, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special (B+) upends many conventions of the sci-fi and supernatural genres to deliver a memorable tale. Michael Shannon is highly effective as the father of an otherworldly child (Jaeden Lieberher) and along with a buddy nicely played by Joel Edgerton is secretly transporting the precious kid cargo from a religious sect in time for some sort of day of reckoning. With Sam Shepard in a small role as leader of a cult, Kirsten Dunst as the child’s estranged mom and Adam Driver as a preternaturally wise government agent, it’s unclear if we’re preparing for abductions, alien invasions or the rapture itself. Nichols sustains a slow-burn tension and a desaturated color pallet through most of the journey and employs very few special effects, aside from the kids’ light beam eyes that look like lens flairs that would be the envy of J.J. Abrams. The story leaves a variety of unsolved mysteries but will appeal to fans of M. Night Shyamalan’s early work. The acting is so subdued that you almost yearn for someone to go a bit nuts, and the one-note child performance leaves us a bit wanting. But the film will reward fans who appreciate the indie treatment to this kind of story.
Quentin Tarantino’s hybrid western mystery gangster epic The Hateful Eight (B+) has all the trappings of the writer/director’s best work from outstanding ensemble acting to wicked dialogue to twisty plot conventions to pulpy action and inventive use of music. To some extent, it’s at times be too much of a retread of his most common conventions. Filmed as a Cinerama presentation in classic 70mm Panavision with gorgeous Ennio Morricine overture and an intermission, the saturated colors of this post-Civil War tale come vividly to life. Unlike his experiments with grindhouse double features, this homage to cinematic history pays off. As long as it is, it’s a film that nonetheless will reward repeat viewings. The pre-intermission proceedings appear to be too preoccupied with exposition and campfire tales before Act Two truly delivers the mixtape of Agatha Christie style mystery and vicious bloodbath that fans of the auteur will crave. Kurt Russell is impressive as a villainous vermin channeling John Wayne on a bad day, and Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as a charismatic bounty hunter with a surprising past and nearly all the film’s most iconic lines. Walton Goggins is a revelation as the sheriff of Red Rock with unlikely cunning, and Jennifer Jason Leigh unfurls a crackerjack of a performance as a duplicitous prisoner. Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and Channing Tatum are all effective in their roles. The only weak link, possibly from misdirection is Demián Bichir. Expect extreme language and violence and vintage Tarantino. It falls just short of some of his tighter and tidier work, but it’s more splendid fire in his canon.
Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino describe the “Roadshow” engagement and technology behind the film on TrailerAddict.
One of the “perks of being a movie critic” is having a favorite genre, and I’m an absolute sucker for coming-of-age dramas. Jake Schreier’s Paper Towns (B) is a leisurely paced but fairly sensational adaptation of a young adult novel about losing yourself, finding yourself and savoring the moments in between. When a sensitive but by-the-books high school student, charmingly played by Nat Wolff, gives into a night of spontaneous prankster antics with the popular girl next door (an alluring and lived-in performance by Cara Delevingne), the teen discovers a bit of his roguish nature and unlocks the beginnings of a mystery; and the final weeks of high school become a series of unexpected breakthroughs. Romanticized with all applicable teen drama tenets – wise-beyond-her-years muse, prom plot line, road trip, scruffy sidekicks and the like – the film manages to layer in a mystery adventure that speaks to the very nature of love for oneself and others. It’s a tad overstuffed; but despite some over-the-top leaps of faith, the film contains believable characters and a prescient payoff. The selfie generation has another awesome movie about selflessness and a nice piece of summer movie counter-programming.
Todd Phillips’ The Hangover (B+) is vulgar, audacious and altogether winning. Pairing Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis in a hybrid comedy/mystery, the film follows a gang of groomsmen who must piece together what happened the previous night in a debaucherous Vegas bachelor party where the groom mysteriously disappeared. The episodic antics and misadventures of the so-called “Wolfpack” keep upping the ante, and dark hilarity ensues. These hedonistic Hardy Boys are best when displaying their vulnerabilities, with escalating levels of haplessness. The humor and highjinks add up to a delightful entertainment.
Telling its story backwards, Christopher Nolan’s Memento (A) may be the only logical way to get to the central mystery of a man with short-term memory who knows his wife is dead but doesn’t know who killed her. As played by Guy Pearce, the lead character is a fascinating enigma. Nolan shows his penchant for a puzzle with a spectacular through-line of storytelling and a most excellent payoff.