Knives Out

Knives Out

By: Kevin Jordan

And just a dash of Foghorn Leghorn.

We’re finally to the last – arguably the best – big movie season of the year. Unlike the summer, it is not just filled with big, loud blockbusters plus even bigger, louder, dumb blockbusters. The end-of-year season includes prestige movies, smart dramas, Star Wars (usually), and, yes, big, loud, dumb blockbusters (looking at you, Jumanji: The Next Level). It means a time when blockbusters don’t fill ninety percent of the theaters because studios actually want you to see the other movies. Thus, we get movies like Knives Out.

Knives Out takes elements of Clue and Greedy, mixes in some Agatha Christie, and sprinkles a little Foghorn Leghorn on top. I am always up for a good whodunit. These movies are very few and far between, so when one comes along, I look forward to it. Especially when that whodunit promises Daniel Craig and Chris Evans. And Jamie Lee Curtis. And Michael Shannon and Christopher Plummer and Toni Collette and Don Johnson. Well, maybe not those last two, but maybe some of you get really excited for Collette and Johnson.

We all really love you…’re money.

Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) is very old and very rich. Harlan has been taking care of his family for decades, lending money to Joni (Collette) for her business, paying for Meg’s (Katherine Langford) college, gifting seed money to Linda’s (Curtis) business, and letting Walt (Shannon) run Harlan’s publishing business. When Harlan is found dead in his office (the opening scene of the film), the cops interview the family at Harlan’s home and the dysfunction and greed starts to reveal itself.

The interviews are initially conducted by Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield), the audience getting a rotation of Linda, Joni, Walt, and Richard (Johnson) answering questions while private investigator Benoit Blanc (Craig) looks on in the background. Eventually, Benoit takes over the investigation, revealing that he was paid by an anonymous benefactor to investigate Harlan’s death (initially ruled a suicide). These scenes do a great job of establishing characters, setting up the scenes, and revealing the timeline of events that occurred the night of Harlan’s death.

Move! I got this.

The two remaining main characters are Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Evans), and Harlan’s caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas). Ransom is universally loathed by the family, mostly because he is a trust-fund baby freeloading through life. Marta is the opposite of Ransom and the one person Harlan fully trusted. She also has an interesting condition where she vomits if she lies. If this is a real condition, I want to meet the person that has it and test it. From a distance. Benoit most certainly does.

Now you know the basics of the film and the rest is trying to figure out the truth behind Harlan’s death before the movie reveals it. Like any good whodunit, there are red herrings, twists, and turns to throw you and the detectives off the scent. The problem is it is hard to focus attention on looking for clues and misdirection when we are being wildly entertained by a bunch of actors reveling in their roles and the screenplay. For my money, the best line comes when a character loses patience with Benoit, telling him to stop with the “absurd, Kentucky-fried, Foghorn Leghorn accent,” a line that simultaneously jabs at Benoit’s accent…and Craig doing Benoit’s accent. It also is an apt summary of a movie that is a legitimate murder-mystery…while also being a bit of a caricature of a murder-mystery. A movie that is an apt metaphor of the end-of-the-year movie season.

Rating: Worth ten dollars more than you paid for it, which should prevent you from paying for Charlie’s Angels.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

By: Kevin Jordan

There is a hole in your shape.

(It’s award consideration season and I’m playing catch-up.  As I tear through them, I thought I’d try mini-reviews.  Enjoy!)

The Shape of Water is another attempt by Guillermo del Toro to convince us he is anything more than weird creatures.  To be fair, Pacific Rim was absurdly entertaining and the Hellboy movies are guilty pleasures, but everything else he has made has been a letdown.  Right off the bat, I thought The Shape of Water was heading in that same disappointing direction because the opening scene features our heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), masturbating in a bathtub.  Other than to convince the men in the audience not to leave (we see Hawkins fully nude), the scene serves no purpose.  Luckily, the film gets to the main attraction quickly – a merman being held captive for study by the U.S. government to get a leg up on the Russians in the space race (the film takes place in the 1960s).  Okay, so del Toro still has a lot to learn about coherent writing, but the film is pretty good when it focuses on its real story – Elisa falling in love with the merman and hatching a plan to help him escape before he is killed.  It’s classic Beauty and the Beast, but with boobs and scary-ass Michael Shannon as the heartless agent running the lab.  As long as you can get past the out-of-place (and bad) French-esque music and massive plot hole of there being cameras everywhere in the facility except the room containing the merman, it’s a pretty engaging and entertaining film.  If nothing else, you can stay for the unique sex scene that del Toro invented.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back.  One for the music and one for the plot hole.

The Night Before

By: Kevin Jordan

It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.

night_before

This week, I had to choose between two movies – The Night Before and Creed.  On one hand, The Night Before looked like it could be really funny and I’m always looking for a good laugh, but Seth Rogen and friends have been responsible for some really unfunny movies.  On the other hand, Creed looked like the latest desperate attempt by Sylvester Stallone to stay relevant, but almost assuredly promised to be a terrible film that would be fun to destroy in a review.  I mean, how could it not be terrible; have you seen the premise and previews?  Rocky trains Apollo Creed’s son and suffers some sort of near death/death ala Mickey from Rocky III?  Seriously?  I know Michael B. Jordan needs a win after the embarrassment of Fantastic Four, but I’m pretty sure Creed won’t be that win.  Anyway, despite the ease at which a review of Creed would write itself, I decided not to punish myself by sitting through it and chose to risk punishing myself by sitting through The Night Before.

Before I get to the rest of the review, I want to point out that The Night Before is the second Christmas movie I’ve seen in as many weeks (Love the Coopers).  For everyone out there who believes in the mythical war on Christmas; that Starbucks hates Christmas because they decided to serve coffee in cups not featuring a Christmas tree (yet the cup is red with a green Starbucks logo; you know – Christmas colors), you can shut up now.  Not only does every store have all of their Christmas merchandise out; not only is the shopping mall near my house already decorated to the hilt in Christmas gear, but we’ve now had two Christmas movies released well before Thanksgiving.  If there’s a war on Christmas, the anti-Christmas team is getting crushed.

(Very mild SPOILERS ahead.)

Anyway, The Night Before is about three friends, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie), trying to find the ultimate, but well-hidden, Christmas party known as the Nutcracker Ball.  They’ve been at it for ten years and the only thing they know is what the invitation looks like.  At this point in their lives, Chris is now a famous football player, Isaac is about to be a father, and both of them are ready to end the hunt because they are grown-ups now.  Conversely, Ethan is single and works as a waiter for a catering service, and doesn’t want to let go of their annual tradition (and all of the things they repeat during the tradition) because it’s all he has (his parents died just before the Christmas Eve that led to said tradition).  Predictably, all of these issues will be addressed (Chris is on steroids and Isaac is terrified of fatherhood) and all three guys will have to deal with these issues by the end of the film.  I know this doesn’t sound funny yet, but all of that stuff is really just the dressing.  The turkey is the series of events that occur during their final attempt to find the mythical party.

Actually, finding the party turns out to be the easy part of the night.  While Ethan is at work, he stumbles upon three invitations to the party while checking coats.  He steals the invitations and bolts to find Chris and Isaac so he can share the good news.  After calling the number on the invitation, they learn that they have several hours to kill before the location will be revealed, so the party turns out to be the big gift-wrapped MacGuffin of the film.  The hard part of the night is actually making it long enough to even go to the party, as a combination of drinking, drugs, and squabbles threaten to derail the quest.  Yes, this is a quest movie and Ethan must complete the quest.  But, what quest isn’t complete without trials and tribulations?

Knowing that this is their last time doing this tradition, Isaac’s wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) gives Isaac a box filled with “every kind of drug in the world.”  As you probably already know (based on the previews), this leads to Isaac being high off his ass (to put it mildly) for the entire film, which is the biggest hurdle for Ethan.  It also leads to nearly all of the best jokes in the film because no one does high off his ass better than Rogen.  Then, there’s Chris’s side quest to obtain some weed for his quarterback (Chris is desperate for his teammates to like him).  This quest includes an old teacher (and marijuana dealer) of theirs – Mr. Green (Michael Shannon) – and a slutty, anti-Christmas thief named Rebecca Grinch (Ilana Glazer).  Yes, her name is Grinch and no, it was not funny (or clever).  Finally, there’s Ethan’s ex-girlfriend, Diana (Lizzy Caplan).  For reasons not even remotely explained, she and her friend (Mindy Kaling) were legitimately invited to the party, so you can bet your ass that the party is going to be trumped by whatever happens between the two of them.

At this point, I need to give credit to the writers (Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Jonathan Levine, Ariel Shaffir) because I went into this film with zero expectations of any kind of plot more than “hijinks galore.”  Getting a film with a decently organized plot on top of a cornucopia of comedy was definitely worth the earlier start to Christmas (and that’s why I spent so many words talking about it).  Goldberg in particular has been responsible for some awful movies, so getting something that didn’t feel like it was written with paste and glitter deserves attention.

Most importantly though, the comedy was well worth the decision to see this film.  Every now and then, you hear or see something that makes you laugh so hard that you cry and can’t breathe.  This happened to me during the church scene in this movie, which is also shown in the previews (so I can say it here without feeling bad).  Watching Rogen hiss at a baby, then ask his wife who the guy on the cross is by emulating Christ’s position, then try not to puke at the thought of crucifixion, then hear his wife say “don’t you dare throw up.  You swallow it like a girl would,” nearly broke me and most of the audience as well.  If this is what Christmas coming extra early brings, I’m all for it.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and get over the Starbucks thing.  It’s a cup.

99 Homes

By: Kevin Jordan

…to evict people from.  99 Homes on the block.  Evict them now.  Move to the next.  98 Homes to evict people from.

Poster Art

Is it okay that I’m being glib about a movie containing realistic depictions of people being evicted from their homes?  On the one hand, it’s really sad and depressing to watch people go through that.  On the other hand, it’s just a movie.  Well, you know what they say – when life gives you lemons, punch life in the throat for giving you the worst fruit you can think of.  At least, that’s the lesson Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) tries to impart on Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) in 99 Homes.

In all seriousness, eviction is something that I (and nearly every other homeowner) worry about.  Nothing so drastic as keeping me up at night – I’m fortunate enough to have a steady income and a wife with a steady income as well, but there’s an occasional tickle every now and then where I can’t help but think of the worst case scenario.  This movie brings life to that tickle and it doesn’t discriminate between race or social class in showing us who gets evicted.  I wouldn’t call it a horror movie, but it does more to induce nightmares than most typical horror flicks do.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead.)

Dennis Nash is a construction worker who lives with his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mother, Lynn (Laura Dern) and Dennis is struggling to pay the bills and keep up with the house mortgage.  When his current job abruptly ends, he is unable to find more work and finds himself in court, desperate to keep the bank from foreclosing and evicting his family.  Obviously, he fails and finds himself and family ousted from their home by the Orlando police and real estate agent, Rick Carver.  Carver’s business model is representing the banks who own the loans, executing the evictions, and flipping the houses for a profit.  Quickly thereafter, Dennis finds himself working for Rick, whom Dennis essentially wanted dead just a day earlier.  Carver sees someone he can manipulate in Dennis, but also sees in him someone that can increase Carver’s profits.  Dennis gets a crash course in Carver’s operations and soon finds himself as the guy everybody, including himself, hates – the repo man.

While this movie doesn’t steers away from over-dramatizing the eviction run-ins, it does a fantastic job of displaying a few different scenarios.  There are deadbeats, there are defeated families, there are rational people, there are old people verging on Alzheimer’s, there are people who threaten violence, and there are people who sabotage the house prior to leaving (this particular scene is so good you can almost smell what they did – that’s all I’ll say).  But all of them have one thing in common – they all just need a little more time and the desperation is palpable.  After about five minutes of this (and that’s just the beginning), I was more uncomfortable than a scientist in a room full of creationists.  And it wasn’t just because of the situations; it was because Michael Shannon was awesome.

Besides his legitimate business practices, Carver is fully engaged in questionable/illegal activities to keep him ahead in the real estate game.  Among his shady practices, he has figured out ways to scam Fannie Mae out of money in the form of reimbursements (he steals appliances from the homes, gets reimbursed for new appliances, then just reinstalls the stolen ones) and is constantly driving around looking for signs of distressed homeowners so he can expedite their evictions.  Shannon delivers one of the sleaziest characters on screen since Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler and a much more frightening character than his General Zod in Man of Steel.

Speaking of bad superhero movies, Garfield also redeems himself after the dismal Amazing Spider-Man movies (despite what some people say, he was not a good Spider-Man).  Unlike in those past films, Garfield is given good writing and asked to actually, you know, act.  Throughout the film, Dennis is visibly disturbed by what he is doing to take care of his family.  It’s a little like the way Walter White started out before he saw nothing but dollar signs, but without all the murder and meth.  Dennis can’t sleep at night, he’s looking over his shoulder, and doing everything he can to not feel emotions for the evictees, all while Carver is molding him into a version of Carver himself.  Garfield does such a good job of emoting that you end up feeling the same emotions as him, right up until the credits role.

The best thing about this movie is that it doesn’t take a hard political line on the topic.  In fact, it does a really good job of balancing between people who sympathize with evictees and don’t think they should lose their homes and people who say “tough shit – that is the consequence of borrowing and not paying back” (comment trolls would call them liberal democrats and conservative republicans, respectively – or something much less respectful).  The scene that really hits this dichotomy home is in one of the lessons Carver is bestowing on Dennis in which Carver simultaneously rants against the homeowners for doing stupid things like financing enclosed patios and borrowing too much money and the banks for doing stupid things like loaning money to those people and other people who can’t possibly pay it back.

While I think this was a very good movie with two fantastic performances from Garfield and Shannon, I will never watch this movie again.  That’s not a backhanded compliment or me being glib again – that’s just how uncomfortable this movie made me.  Like American History X and Requiem for a Dream, it’s on my list of movies that I would recommend everybody sit through only once…because that amount of cringing in one showing is enough for ten.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and try to get a good night’s sleep.