Knives Out

In spite of the hype and overdone praise that this film has received, it is still a pretty basic “Who Done It?” Maybe there is a slight hint of a criticism of the 1% to make it seem socially relevant and topical. There is one scene where there is a direct discussion of current political events, but that feels like it will date the film rather than make it relevant. Writer/Director Rain Johnson would probably have been better off sticking to the traditional focus of a murder mystery, rather than trying to make it woke by including jabs at immigration policies and tax brackets.

The creative part of the film is the overlapping story of who is behind the investigation rather than who killed the victim. As told in a series of flashbacks, we see how the victim died, and it appears that there was a cover-up of an accident rather than a murder. It is only after motives get investigated that it becomes clear a crime really did occur. The intricacies of the plot are manifest in a series of vignettes that reveal what happened, what the suspects say about what happened, and what took place after those events. All of this gives a variety of actors a chance to strut their stuff on screen and create a collection of self centered privileged characters that we can smirk at for their foibles.

Christopher Plummer gets a second chance to play a rich octogenarian with issues surrounding his heirs. He turns in a slight but joyful performance. While he is not in the film long, there are some great moments that he shares with each of the main characters. Harlan Thrombey does not seem to be malicious in the decisions he is making regarding his family, but he is less concerned with his family than he is with his personal desires. Jamie Leigh Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and Toni Collette all are given reasons to want to see him dead, but is he really murdered? What Johnson has done with his story is to find an alternative approach to the primary motivation. Daniel Craig as celebrated private detective Benoit Blanc is brought in to determine what really happened, but why he is there and who is paying is the mystery.

Ana de Arnas plays the old man’s nurse/companion who becomes a prime suspect but also the victim of persecution. The fact that she comes from an immigrant family and is not part of the rich inner circle is the thing that tries to establish some social credentials. It’s a shorthand plot device that works but in the long run, her families legal status is a distraction to the story rather than a justification for giving this movie any weight.  Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are the quirky spice in the blend. Don Johnson could have been playing the Chris Evans role thirty years ago, so it does feel like the casting decisions were right. Craig’s accent is laid on a little thick but since so much of the film attempts a comic edge I guess it works well enough.

About halfway through, I figured out who the antagonist really is, it’s not hard given the story structure. The real question is what are their motivations for choosing the course of action that was taken. The complex legal conundrum is brought up in the funniest scene where a welcome performance by Frank Oz, addresses the consequences of the dead man’s will. The extended scene is where half of the laughs in the movie can be located, not because there are jokes but because characters act out of their natures. This is a place where Johnson’s ideas stretch us a bit but do entertain us.

The film is a solid mystery puzzle and there are some good laughs to be had, but people suggesting that this is one of the great films of the year are over selling it to you. Go in with reasonable expectations of being entertained and you will be fine.

Captain America: Civil War

We have come to rely on Marvel to kick off the summer movie going season with a big splashy comic book adventure. Ever since “IronMan” eight years ago, there has been a steady stream of comic book product from this creative team. Fortunately we have been provided compelling stories and great characters for the most part. From my point of view, the weak link has been the standalone “Iron Man” sequels. Tony Snark, oops, Stark, is a great film personality who has often had to flounder in average material. Traveling in the opposite direction for the most part has been Steve Rogers. Cap has gotten more effective plot lines and more interesting dilemmas to deal with. The Avengers movies have been a good way to bring these characters together, but this is the best mash up of these two characters so far. Lots of other Avengers appear, but this is an “Iron Man” “Captain America” film.

As usual, I will dispense with a recap of the plot, you’ll go see the movie and why would you want someone else to tell you the story you are about to pay $15 bucks to see? I will mention as few plot points as necessary to convey the idea of the film, so that yo have a bit of context for the commentary. The world gets a little paranoid about the collateral damage that occurs when the Avengers are called on to act. The idea that someone in charge should be calling the shots, rather than the extraordinary people who make up the team, has surfaced, and it seems like a necessary compromise to some of the Avengers, but others disagree. This is not a political blog and I don’t want folks to be too irritated by what I’m about to say, but it seems very obvious to me. Tony Stark and Secretary Ross are stand ins for an ascendant view of foreign policy and military intervention. Extreme caution and world wide consensus before acting.   Steve Rogers and his allies are the old school version of cowboy diplomacy, act when yo see a threat and live with the consequences of your actions. “Civil War” is not just a clash between the superheroes, it is a clash over ideologies. The film is also not subtle about which side it favors, probably because we want super heroes to act rather than debate in our entertainment.

Neither side is blameless in the confrontation that ensues and neither is malicious in their position. One of the things that makes this movie so much more fun than the recent “Batman V. Superman” is that the characters recognize the righteousness that their opposition feels and the awkwardness of the confrontation. Only The Winter Soldier seems undisturbed by having to face down and fight friends. Of course he has not got the same investment in relationships that the other characters have. In one fight sequence, a character accuses another of pulling their punches, and in essence that is what all of them are doing.  No one is trying to destroy their former partners, it is just Bucky Barnes that has the full force of one side directed at him. Everyone else is trying to walk on egg shells (OK, maybe not Black Panther either). As an illustration of the conflicting tones that the film manages to walk a tightrope on, two new characters are brought into the Avengers Universe and end up on opposite sides. Both provide comic relief and still fight with all of their skills and both also know that they don’t want to do permanent damage to the opposition. Paul Rudd is charming and a bit star struck as he backs up the Captain. Somehow, Disney has managed to wrestle Spiderman away from Sony’s complete control, and the new guy, Tom Holland, has the potential to get that franchise back on track as long as the creatives in this universe can keep control. [There is great hope that they will do so given the final credits crawl.]

 

With every welcome appearance of another loved character, the audience was responsive but the movie really does come down to the Tony/Steve relationship and confrontation. I know that Robert Downey Jr. was born to play this part because even in the weak sequels he is the compelling feature. He does a nice job selling the idea that there is some vulnerability behind that cynical facade he projects. The absence of Pepper Potts actually makes him a warmer character because he notices how much her absence effects him. He even recognizes that it is his faults that make their relationship a rocky one at times. Chris Evans continues to impress at bringing dimension to what might have been the flattest character in the original source material but one that has become the moral center of this Universe. The fight that is the climax of the film involves a confrontation that we saw early in the first Avengers movie. Captain America and Iron Man are two strong willed individuals who are willing to throw down for their beliefs. The resolution of this fight is tempered by the motivation that one character has for pressing it. No one wants these two to be defeated, but a conflict like this needs an outcome to keep credibility. I found the solution to be very satisfying.

This film is clearly a success. No one will have to offer half-hearted justifications for it like I heard so often for “The Age of Ultron”. It is not perfect; I found the underlying plot that motivates the mysterious figure behind some of the events to be murky and sometimes implausible. There are characters that would have been fun to have in the film a bit more organically. I thought the willingness to concede to a group of authorities outside of the team, despite whatever guilt he felt about Ultron, to be out of character for Tony Stark. Once again, I am a little dismayed at the amount of mayhem in large cities is required to keep audiences coming to the cinemaplex.  To counter those minor misgiving, we do get a discussion of the morality of that mayhem, and we have an intriguing new character in Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. As long as the “team up” movies live up to this standard, and as long as we get some breathing room with well placed and reasonably plotted stand alone films, I will be able to stay with the “Mighty Marvel Marching Society.”