[#2020oscardeathrace] Knives Out (2019)

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer

Screenplay: Rian Johnson

131 mins. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [PENDING]

 

When it was announced that writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) would be making a murder mystery before returning to helm a trilogy of Star Wars films (I’m still convinced this will happen, but maybe it’s just my wanting), I was shocked but rather interested. After all, the subgenre of Agatha Christie-inspired murder mysteries had kind of dried in recent years outside of adaptations of her work like Murder on the Orient Express. Rian Johnson, who had dealt in the mystery genre several years earlier with Brick, seemed like the perfect choice to restart this once beloved subgenre, and I was all for it.

Famous crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, Beginners, The Last Full Measure) is dead. The death has been ruled a suicide, but someone unknown has hired the last great sleuth, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, Casino Royale, Logan Lucky) to investigate. It would seem that Harlan had no true friends within his family, and each of them has a motive strong enough to be a suspect, but just who did it? As lies are created and truths are uncovered, the family is turns on one another, and it’s up to Blanc to find the donut hole, the missing piece of the story.

Where to begin with this film? First off, we have to address Johnson’s tone for the film. It’s fun, sarcastic, stylish, and engaging. He sets most of the action in one location, Harlan’s mansion, a gorgeously-designed set that I just wanted to spend more time in. There are homages all throughout the mansion designed to invoke that classic mystery theme. Plus, it’s just a damn creepy house. Beyond that, the house and the characters residing in it feel real within the universe Johnson has constructed. The house feels lived-in. The characters feel like they have long lists of experiences to pull from. Everything fits, like puzzle pieces expertly placed to give a  clearer image and a staggering conclusion.

Daniel Craig leads the cast as Blanc with a truly molasses-mouth scene-chewing take on his character that is set to become iconic in years to come. His mannerisms, speech patterns, and physicality make Benoit Blanc a treat to be with, and that’s much like the mansion. I wanted to spend time with these characters. Not in the way that they are friendly, but in the way that they are fun to watch.

Each of the members of Thrombey’s extended family is like a slightly-damaged, partially-fractured chess piece arranged on a board, and Johnson is playing against himself. I was primarily taken with Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049, The Informer) as Marta, Harlan’s nurse, who feels alienated within the family even though they all claim that she’s a part of it. Then there is Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, True Lies, Halloween) and her husband Richard (Vault, TV’s Miami Vice), who play very well on their own but have a dynamite chemistry when put together.

In fact, the cast is pitch-perfect, and there’s no real time to talk about all of them, but I have to give a shout to Chris Evans (The Avengers, The Read Sea Diving Resort) as Ransom, Harlan’s grandson, the loud-mouthed privileged youth who obviously has no friends within the family. Evans plays against-type when compared to his decade as Captain America with Ransom, and it’s a welcome return to the smarmy roles he was once more well-known for.

If there’s a flaw in the film, and I do believe there is one for me, it’s that certain reveals in the film happen far earlier than I would have liked, and I think the mystery would have been stronger if we were kept wondering for longer. That, and I personally was able to see where it was going a little earlier than I would’ve liked. Perhaps I was just good at guessing, as I’ve spoken to others who did not see the end coming. My suggestion would be not to try and unravel the mystery, but instead, enjoy the journey, because it’s a damn good one.

Knives Out is an elegantly-constructed Whodunnit with incredible performances, great production design, and a director at the helm who really understands story and tone. This was enjoyable as hell and I cannot wait to see it again. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out comes highly recommended.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, click here.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Director: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams

Screenplay: Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams

141 mins. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action.

 

Well, we’ve come to the end, haven’t we? I guess, in the grand scheme of things, this is the third end, but who is really counting? With Episode IX, the Skywalker Saga has come to an end…for now, at least. Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Super 8) came on to an impossible task of ending the nine-film saga, the sequel trilogy itself, and make a less-divisive film than The Last Jedi. He also had to work around the death of one of his stars, Carrie Fisher (Maps to the Stars, TV’s Family Guy). He also had the, perhaps unfair, perception that he’s much better at starting a story than finishing one. So with all that, is The Rise of Skywalker the perfect film that delivers on all of its goals. As it turns out, it’s more of a mixed bag.

It’s been a year since The Last Jedi, and the crumbling resistance fighters have gained a few additions but still pale in comparison with the size of the dreaded First Order, now under the leadership of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Paterson, Marriage Story). Now, a strange message has been sent across the galaxy, seemingly coming from the long-dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, The Lost City of Z, Sleepy Hollow), and it’s up to Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express, Ophelia) and her friends to discover his location before he unleashes his new Final Order upon the galaxy.

I think the best way to describe this final film in the Skywalker Saga is “Great Story, Poor Execution.” I had loads of fun in this movie, and I quite enjoyed the experience when I saw it a second time, but there are a lot of strange choices made, particularly in the screenplay and the editing, that I just didn’t understand. I don’t need everything explained for me in a movie, but some of the plot progression happens just because…

The inclusion of Carrie Fisher in this film had to come as a difficult decision. Ultimately, Abrams decided to utilize unused footage from The Force Awakens to create a performance for Leia in the film. Does it work? Kind of. I still stand by my thoughts that it would have served the character and the story better to just not have Fisher in the film and announce in the opening crawl that “Our princess has passed” or something similar. I think for what he tried to do, I can commend Abrams for getting Leia in the film, and the second viewing softened my criticism in the realm of Leia.

Adam Driver is absolutely stellar as Kylo Ren. I don’t agree entirely with the route taken in this film with Kylo Ren, but Driver’s performance sold me on it. Again, Kylo’s arc is one I felt would be better going one way, but the filmmakers decided to take it the expected route. Overall, he surprised me yet again as Ren.

J.J. Abrams did manage to get the galactic Scooby gang together for a bulk of this film. It was crazy to me that Rey and Poe (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina, The Addams Family) met for the first time officially in The Last Jedi at the end of the film. The Last Jedi also managed to keep most of our heroes separate for a bulk of the runtime, so it’s great that they are all on a journey together. These areas are where a bulk of the lightheartedness of the film takes place and elevates what could be a very dreary story.

Daisy Ridley’s arc as Rey is another tough one to pull off, and I think her performance rises above expectations because of Ridley’s inherent charm onscreen. She’s a fun character and one that the audience has no problems rooting for. Again, there are some twists and turns to her character arc, some I did not expect and didn’t think would work, and they mostly did.

As far as legacy characters go, no one had a better showcase in this film than C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle, The Lord of the Rings). This is 3PO at his most funny and probably most utilized since the first film. Anthony Daniels continues to prove why this franchise continues to go to the C-3PO well.

The rest of the cast all perform ably, and any faults can be attributed to the screenplay. Newcomers Naomi Ackie (Lady Macbeth, Yardie) and Keri Russell (Waitress, TV’s The Americans) are both quite entertaining, but their characters seek only to convolute an already bloated screenplay. The subplot involving General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, Frank, Peter Rabbit) and General Pryde (Richard E. Grant, Gosford Park, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) is well-acted, but it didn’t need to be in the film and is ultimately meaningless. It was great to see Billy Dee Williams (The LEGO Batman Movie, The Man in 3B) back as Lando Calrissian, but he isn’t given a whole lot to do, and one wonders why he wasn’t included earlier. It seems odd for him to just show up now.

Ian McDiarmid’s return to the franchise does give an overall feeling of cohesiveness to the saga, but Palpatine’s plans for Rey and Kylo just don’t really make sense all around. I love the visual look of Palpatine and the environment he appears in (in fact, some of Ralph McQuarrie’s unused concept art from decades ago was put to good use here), but again, it feels like lazy storytelling and I didn’t get the sense that there was detail in the screenplay because the story lacked a lot, not in how Palpatine is back, but why he waited until now and how he manages to do what he does in the film.

I think the problems of The Rise of Skywalker all stem from the fact that Lucasfilm did not have a plan for this trilogy. By not putting the three directors in a room with someone like Dave Filoni who can offer guidance in crafting a cohesive long-form story. Not having a plan forced Abrams to do a lot of heavy lifting here and it created a film with an interesting and exciting finale that lacked direction because so much is jammed into a movie. Having Chris Terrio as a writer may also have created some problems in the screenplay. While I think Terrio is quite talented, he seems to have a lot of trouble with franchise storytelling, most notably from his tie working on the DCEU. It also feels like The Rise of Skywalker would have fared batter as a three-hour film. That and tightening up the MacGuffin-filled narrative would have helped the film to be more successful in its execution.

I still think The Rise of Skywalker turned out better with Abrams than it would have with Colin Trevorrow behind the wheel. The number one thing here is whether the film is entertaining an enjoyable, and problems and nitpicks aside, there’s a lot to love in this finale. The film is filled with fun surprises, callbacks and appearances, and the score from John Williams is absolutely awe-inspiring. A better screenplay and some more cohesive editing could’ve helped quite a bit, but this is a hell of an action-packed conclusion to the Skywalker Saga.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, click here.

For my review of Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, click here.

For my review of Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, click here.

For my review of Richard Marquand’s Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, click here.

For my review of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, click here.

For my review of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, click here.

Harriet (2019)

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn

Screenplay: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons

125 mins. Rated PG-13.

 

It’s crazy to think that it’s 2019 and we still don’t have a major memorable release about the life of Harriet Tubman. Maybe I’m just not thinking about one or can’t bring one to mind, but I don’t think one exists. In fact, the film we’re talking about today almost didn’t get made at all, sitting on a shelf at Disney for years until they relinquished rights to the script. So with all that, how did it turn out?

When a young slave woman named Minty (Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale, TV’s Genius) escapes and heads for the border, she takes on the new name of Harriet Tubman and joins up with William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express, TV’s Smash) and the Underground Railroad to become one of the most celebrated slave-rescuers in history. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity) shows Harriet’s religious views when she has visions giving her direction in saving slaves, and it shows her fearless nature in the pursuit of freedom for her fellow slaves.

Let’s talk Cynthia Erivo here. I really liked what she did with the role, and I think she almost-flawlessly plays the role of Harriet Tubman. Almost-flawlessly. My big problem with the way Harriet is portrayed is that I don’t think the visions of God that she has works very well onscreen. I think there’s a better way to put this on film. It just didn’t work for me. I really think there’s a way to get this element put to screen better, and I keep thinking how, if it were put to film better, then it could be considered a strong film about religion. I kick on religious films a lot because I don’t think they successfully convey religious tones in a strong enough manner, and I think with the strong production of a film like Harriet, this could be something really cool if it were pulled off better. Back to Erivo, though, this film proves without a doubt that Erivo is capable of carrying a lead performance.

Director Kasi Lemmons does some good work in the film, but her presentation is a little formulaic and straight-forward, and what she needed to remember while making the film is that there’s a lot of the same thing happening in the film. That’s not to knock the incredible thing that Harriet Tubman accomplished, don’t think I’m saying that. All I mean is that the notion of her moving slaves to safety could’ve been given something more visual to represent the journey. Outside of her initial escape, I don’t the length of the journey is presented extremely well. It’s serviceable, but not truly accomplished in the movie.

From the supporting cast, I really enjoyed Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still and Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures, UglyDolls) as Marie Buchanon, a friend to Harriet who gets her on her feet when she makes it to the north. They are both exemplary performers who elevate the material. Joe Alwyn (The Favourite, Boy Erased) also stars as Gideon Brodess, the son of the man who owned Harriet in the south. I didn’t like the way his character was portrayed in the film didn’t make him a fleshed-out character. I think the way to make a powerful villain is more than just being menacing and violent. There are moments early on in the film where he interacts with Harriet about their past and then it is barely mentioned after her escape. I would have liked their childhood past delved further into in the film through flashback to help fuel his character arc. Again, Gideon isn’t a bad villain. He does villainous things in the film, but I don’t think he’s a realistic villain and I think the finale of the film would have been more powerful if he was given more to do than be menacing.

Harriet is a strong enough biopic on Harriet Tubman that is worth your time. It’s far from perfect, but it’s pretty damn powerful nonetheless. Harriet won’t be accepting any Oscars come 2020, but this is still a solid history lesson about an incredible human being and an incredible triumph of the human spirit. This is still one worth checking out.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2018oscardeathrace] Victoria & Abdul (2017)

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Tim Pigot-Smith, Paul Higgins

Screenplay: Lee Hall

111 mins. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Costume Design [Pending]

 

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Florence Foster Jenkins) seems to surprise me with his films. He has regularly directed films that, on the surface, seem very boring, but when I see them, I’m often shocked at how much I’ve enjoyed them. Victoria & Abdul is another such film that seemed rather boring from what I’ve seen. But did the finished film actually work?

Victoria & Abdul is the story of a friendship between an aging Queen Victoria (Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal, Murder on the Orient Express) and her Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal, Furious 7, Fukrey Returns). This friendship is resented by son Bertie (Eddie Izzard, Ocean’s Thirteen, The LEGO Batman Movie) and others in England, who devise several plots to get rid of Abdul and send him back to India.

Frears’s new film suffers from the same issue that some of his previous films have: their pacing. Victoria & Abdul should’ve been tightened down by cutting around 20 minutes from the film. There is a sizable chunk in the middle that doesn’t develop either character and also doesn’t advance the narrative.

What saves the film is the central relationship between Queen Victoria & Abdul Karim. It is the scenes with these two that are so spectacularly well-acted that it makes the entire viewing experience all the more enjoyable. Dench and Fazal put in some of the best performances of 2017, hands down, and their chemistry is terrific.

On the other side of that coin, I didn’t find the supporting “antagonists” of the film to be very well-written. I didn’t really understand their motives outside of them just being mad or jealous. It just didn’t work for me and I didn’t find them interesting or compelling enough to support the narrative’s driving force.

Victoria & Abdul showcases its two leads and their central relationship, and while the “villains” were less than stellar and Frears still hasn’t solved his pacing issues, Dench and Fazal have so much infectious chemistry that it still makes the film worth it. The technical merits of the film are finely-tuned here and the story is a very enjoyable character piece. Check this one out.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Stephen Frears’s Philomena, click here.

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

[#2018oscardeathrace] Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

Screenplay: Rian Johnson

152 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Visual Effects [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score) [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Editing [Pending]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing [Pending]

 

I guess it’s true. No one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans. This movie was divided as hell, but does The Last Jedi deserve the hate or is it missing the praise?

Picking up moments after the events of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express, Only Yesterday) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Brigsby Bear, Bunyan and Babe) on Ahch-To to discover that he has abandoned the Jedi code to live out his days in quiet solitude. Meanwhile, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, Maps to the Stars, TV’s Family Guy) leads the resistance forces away from D’Qar as a First Order fleet arrives to take them. Now, they are on the run from First Order forces. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina, Suburbicon) makes a costly mistake in the defense of the convoy and falls into a path of mistrust when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, Wild, TV’s Big Little Lies) assumes command of the Resistance forces. Now, as the First Order closes in, Finn and Poe attempt to save the convoy, Rey finds herself drawn ever closer to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Paterson, TV’s Girls) and the truth about her past.

Okay, so I’m not a Star Wars apologist. I find the prequels to be extremely middling in quality, and even though I love all the Star Wars films, I’m not above finding glaring issues that stick out. That being said…

I loved The Last Jedi. It completely changed the game and added so much to the mythology by driving the film forward rather than looking to the past. This is an incredible addition to the Star Wars Saga. Rian Johnson (Looper, The Brothers Bloom) came to the table and took what J.J. Abrams created with The Force Awakens and pushed it further. It’s definitely not like its predecessor in that it isn’t how I expected it. In fact, that’s what I love most about the film. I walked into it with all these preconceived ideas about how the movie has to go, and I would say just about all of them were wrong. I love The Last Jedi because I was shocked and surprised when I watched it, and that hasn’t happened since The Empire Strikes Back.

The film’s performances and cast are top-notch yet again, particularly leads Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher, this being her final Star Wars outing. Hamill could easily have been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars with his most subtle and tortured performance in his entire career. Skywalker is broken by his failure to save Ben Solo.

There’s also some really great work from Ridley and Driver, especially in their shared scenes. We see some darkness in Rey and some potential good in Kylo. It’s clear that these two have not fallen into their roles as enemies yet. There are some nice flaws showcased on both sides here.

I also have to say some about Andy Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes, The Adventures of Tintin) as Supreme Leader Snoke. He doesn’t get as much to do in this new installment, much like The Force Awakens, but the way he is utilized in this film is far superior to Episode VII. Unfortunately, Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Queen of Katwe) and Gwendoline Christie (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, TV’s Game of Thrones) feel shoehorned in as Maz Kanata and Captain Phasma, respectively.

But the film was always going to be divisive. I just wasn’t prepared for how divisive it would be. Even Mark Hamill expressed concerns to Johnson about the direction of the film, but after seeing the finished product, it sounds like he has since been won over.

And there are things I take issue with in the film, but they are merely nitpicky things like a particular Leia scene that comes across a little silly. There’s a moment early on with Luke that could have emotional impact but instead falls to cheap comedy. These are mere nitpicks and, in the scope of the film, this being the darkest film in the saga, I can understand the reliance on some levity.

The Last Jedi honors what has come before while also paving the way to what’s yet to come. It’s a unique Star Wars film, and it’s the best in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. Rian Johnson’s attention to detail and the film’s connective tissue with the rest of the sage, including Rogue One, is just another reason that this film works as well as it does. With this film, Anthony Daniels (The Lego Movie, The Lord of the Rings) becomes the only actor to appear in all the Star Wars live-action releases. I unabashedly loved the theater experience of seeing The Last Jedi, so much so that I saw it an additional two times. See this movie. Three Times.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, click here.

For my review of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, click here.

For my review of Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, click here.

For my review of Richard Marquand’s Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, click here.

For my review of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, click here.

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

Murder on the Orient Express is Here – Again – With First Trailer!

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express just dropped its first trailer. The star-studded cast is displayed with each “suspect” given at least a face introduction as is Branagh himself as the famous detective Hercule Poirot.

I had some initial excitement from this film as I enjoyed Branagh’s recent endeavors Cinderella and Thor (not so much Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and I was curious to see what the filmmaker would create here.

I loved this trailer. It did a great job of setting up the initial mystery and the principal characters but didn’t give a single thing away. I liked the visual flourishes which I felt harkened back to Branagh’s famous adaptations of Shakespeare. I think the cast is engaging and fun, and I think the story could be a lot of fun. This book has been adapted to death but at the same time it has been a little while and hopefully this will bring in a nice audience reception to a solid film. Maybe more will actually read the book too.

So what do you think? Are you excited for Murder on the Orient Express? Did you read the original novel? Let me know/Drop a comment below!

 

-Kyle A. Goethe

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