KNIVES OUT: 4 ½ STARS
In 2017, Kenneth Branagh delivered a new version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” that was as big and bloated as a new crime dramedy, “Knives Out,” is sleek and entertaining. Both feature large ensemble casts and twists galore, but director Rian Johnson manages to breathe life into the creaky whodunit genre.
The action takes place in a small up-state New York town on an estate one character says resembles a “Clue” board. In the film’s opening minutes the dramatic theme song sets the stage for what’s to come… murder most foul.
Marta (Ana de Armas), caregiver to Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer), the best-selling mystery writer of all time, is shocked to discover his dead body in his office. Throat slit, knife on the floor beside him, the local police Det. Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) think it is a suicide but a private investigator, the silver-tongued Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), disagrees and says so in an accent as thick as gumbo.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says to the family, “I would like to request that you all stay until the investigation is completed.”
The assembled family stick around, partially at Blanc’s request but mostly for the reading of the will. “What will that be like?” asks Marta. “Think of a community theatre production of the reading of a tax form,” replies Blanc.
As the investigation unfolds everyone seems to have a motive for killing the old man, from his children the imperious Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the hair-trigger tempered Walt (Michael Shannon) to various others, including the spoiled-rotten grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), devious son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) and alt-right troll grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell). These are people who believe they deserve to be rich and won’t hear any talk to the contrary.
The mystery has more layers than a Vidalia onion but Blanc unpeels it, one tier at a time leading up to the film’s climatic reveal.
“Knives Out” mixes pointed jabs at the 1 per cent — Linda started her company with a modest one-million-dollar loan from her father—with social commentary about class divisions in American life to form the backdrop of this engaging mystery. Add to that a collection of characters that would make Miss Marple suspicious and the game is afoot.
Leading the charge is Craig. As Benoit Blanc, the American Poirot, he rides the line between ridiculous and shrewd, chewing the scenery with an accent unheard since the days of Colonel Sanders television ads. His flowery language—”Physical evidence can tell a story with a forked tongue,” he says—gives Craig a chance to show off his comedic side mixed with a physicality that suggests he can get the job done if need be. It’s a dramatic (maybe that’s not the word but you see what I mean) and welcome shift from his grim-faced 007 role.
What begins as a melodramatic comedy in the vein of “Murder by Death,” gets a little darker as the true nature of the crime is presented, and then funnier again in its wild ‘n woolly resolution. It’s an old-fashioned set-up but slowly echoes of modern-day issues of immigration, deportation and white entitlement are introduced to add edge to the story.
Director Johnson, he of “Looper” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” is having fun here, finding a perfect rhythm in the unveiling of the story’s details. We always learn just enough to carry us through to the next twist and it is an enjoyable ride.
THE TWO POPES: 4 STARS
“The Two Popes” is an odd couple buddy picture about a friendship that proves that sometimes opposites attract.
The fact-based story (i.e. Based on a true story) begins in 2005 with the papal conclave to name a new Pope. The two main candidates, Cardinal Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) from Germany and Argentina’s Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) represent polar opposites in terms of approach. Ratzinger is an intellectual bound to tradition. “Whenever I try and be myself people don’t seem to like me much,” he says. Bergoglio is affable, a humble man who can be heard whistling “Dancing Queen” in the halls. “I’m Argentinian,” he says. “Tango and football are compulsory.”
A vote and a puff of white smoke later Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict while Bergoglio returns to his home country to continue his grass roots ministry.
Cut to seven years later. Pope Benedict is embroiled in a child abuse scandal that sees one of his aides sent to jail and seeks the council of someone whose ideas he formerly rejected, his rival Bergoglio. The two men meet, talk doctrine and just when it seems like they will never find common ground Pope Benedict reveals why he summoned the Argentinian cardinal.
“The church needs change,” he says, “and you could be that change.”
Because of health issues and controversy Pope Benedict wants to retire, to become the first Pope in 700 years to step down.
“I can no longer sit on the chair of St. Peter,” he says. “I cannot play this role anymore.”
History fills in the rest of the details, so no spoilers here.
While we will never know the exact nature of the real conversations between the two, “The Two Popes” finds a compelling dynamic between them. The film’s opening moments is a highly spirited recreation of the race between the two candidates.
It’s fast, crowded and showy but then, as we jump ahead in time, director Fernando Meirelles slows the pace down to focus attention on the conversations. The pleasure of “The Two Popes” is watching two very good actors create worlds with their monologues. The flashbacks, including an extended sequence that details Bergoglio’s regrets over the decisions he made during his country’s Dirty War in the 1970s, add backstory and detail, but this movie is at its best when it is at its simplest, unadorned and in conversation.
QUEEN & SLIM: 4 STARS
We first meet the title characters, Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Ernest “Slim” Hinds (Daniel Kaluuya) as they are strangers, passing time on a first, awkward date at a Cincinnati diner. “So what’s gonna happen tonight?” asks Slim. “I thought we could hang out and get to know one another.” Then fate intervenes, Tinder may have brought them together but circumstance binds them together forever when Slim gets pulled over for “failure to execute a turn signal and swerving a little bit.”
The situation quickly spirals out of control.
Slim presses the aggressive cop to hurry it up while Queen, an attorney, questions the officer’s motives in searching the car. As the police officer’s dashcam rolls, there are harsh words, a skirmish, a misfire and soon the cop lies dead.
“You are a Black man who shot a cop and took his gun,” she says.
“But I’m not a criminal,” he replies.
“You are now. If you turn yourself in you will never see your family again. We have to move forward.”
Panicked, they flee, heading for New Orleans home of Queen’s shady Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine). By the time they make it out of state a video of the accidental shooting has gone viral and their photos are splashed all over the papers.
The press paints them as “lovers”—even though they have just met—on cross country crime spree but public opinion is mixed. An African-American mechanic (Gralen Bryant Banks) they meet on the journey says, “You gave them a reason to kill us,” while his young son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) sees them as folk heroes who stood up to authority. “If you don’t make it,” he says, “that’s OK. You’ll be immortal.”
They plan on making a run to freedom in Cuba. First, they have to avoid the police as they weave and wind their way to Florida’s coast.
Written by Lena Waithe and showcasing the style of director Melina Matsoukas in her feature debut, “Queen & Slim” takes a story with echoes of “Thelma and Louise” or “Bonnie and Clyde” and updates it, presenting the couple on the run tale from an African-American perspective. Angela is a lawyer whose first-hand view of the abuses of the justice system has made her a realist. It is her experience that self-defense will never fly solely based on the colour of their skin and it is her who sets the action in motion. The story of police brutality swaps the frequent narrative, presenting the story of two people who refuse to be oppressed by standing up to authority. There will be no spoilers here but know that “Queen & Slim” isn’t a manifesto, it’s a personal story about how quickly lives, ripe with possibility and promise, can be changed forever.
With terrific performances “Queen & Slim” transcends the outlaws-on-the-lam genre. Instead it is a timely humanistic drama that combines resilience with despair.
DARK WATERS: 3 STARS
The only thing big and green in Mark Ruffalo’s new film “Dark Waters are the hulking wads of cash a major corporation is willing to pay to cover up an ecological disaster.
Based on true events, Ruffalo plays corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilott, a native West Virginian now working for an upscale Cincinnati firm. He makes a living defending big companies but when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a friend of his grandmother shows up complaining that chemical giant Dupont is poisoning his livestock, Bilott is at a loss for words. “I defend chemical companies,” he stuitters. “Well, now you can defend me,” replies the plainspoken Wilbur.
Bilott knows the farm. As a kid he rode horses and milked his first cow there and even though the he doesn’t think he can help, he agrees to have a look. On the land he finds horrifying things. 190 cows dead, many born with birth defects and tumors. Wilbur is convinced that runoff from a nearby landfill is responsible. What was once a pastoral paradise is now a poisoned plot of land.
To paraphrase the famous John Denver song, country roads lead Bilott back home to place he belongs, defending a farmer done wrong by a conglomerate more concerned with profit than people.
“Dark Waters” is about accountability. Bilott spends more than a decade of his life, putting his health and family life at risk to take a corporate Goliath to task for their irresponsible behavior. Ruffalo does a good job at portraying the Bilott’s decline as he is worn down by the tactics of his foe, the impatience of the people he is trying to help and his inability to force the power brokers to play fair. It humanizes a story that otherwise would be a high level legal procedural.
Director Todd Haynes shoots the story in drab tones that echo much of the colorless work—i.e. cataloguing the mountain of paper sent over by Dupont in the form of discovery. It doesn’t make for a compelling looking film but it helps set the scene and tone. Fighting back isn’t glamourous work. It’s about late nights, crappy food and a constant feeling of exhaustion.
“Dark Waters” isn’t a thriller. From the first frame there is no question about who is guilty. The question here is how guilty and will they ever pay for what they have done? It is geared to outage and infuriate, to underscore that the big guys don’t always win. It is marred by a leisurely approach and some paper-thin characterizations, but the David and Goliath story is compelling.
LADY AND THE TRAMP: 3 STARS
New to the Disney+ screening platform comes a glossy live-action—that means real dogs!— remake of “Lady and the Tramp,” the House of Mouse’s 1955 animated classic.
The updated version maintains the heart of the original. The story of two dogs from different sides of the tracks, a pampered American Cocker Spaniel named Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson) and Tramp (voiced by Justin Theroux), a Schnauzer-mutt who lives on the street, is a study in class divides aimed at kid’s imaginations. The plot thickens when Lady’s owners (Kiersey Clemons and Thomas Mann) welcome a baby and, through circumstance, she finds herself on the streets, eking out a life with her new friend Tramp.
This is not your father’s “Lady and the Tramp.”
The Disney+ version of is half an hour longer than the original version and comes with a modern sensibility. That means the regressive and racist “The Siamese Cat” song is nowhere to be found (the cats are no longer Siamese and they sing a new tune called “What a Shame”), irritable Scottish Terrier Jock is now named Jacqueline and Tramp no longer has to defend Lady from a group of wild dogs. She’s more than capable doing that herself. Also, Tramp won’t be defined by the name Tramp. In this outing he has no name.
“Who needs a name?” he says. “I’m free to be whoever I want to be.”
To my eye the changes and new additions don’t justify the extended running time but as a family television experience “Lady and the Tramp” offers up several pleasures. Once you adjust to the inherent strangeness of watching dogs speak, the canines hand in good performances (never thought I would ever actually have to write that in a review).
They don’t have the range of expression their cartoon counterparts brought to the story but, as we saw in “The Lion King,” the technology that brings them to anthropomorphic life is state of the art if not quite the magical experience you might hope for.