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Posts Tagged ‘Jamie Lee Curtis’

I don’t want things to get too confessional around here, especially so soon after I owned up (again) to not being that big a fan of Blade Runner (probably best not to mention I’ve always been fairly lukewarm about Goodfellas, too), but: I’ve never entirely seen what all the fuss is about when it comes to Agatha Christie, either. I know, I know: two billion sales, translated into over a hundred languages, author of the best crime novel ever, apparently – words like massive and enduring don’t begin to do justice to her appeal. She is the kind of writer, it seems, that other people don’t just read and enjoy, they read and enjoy and want to have a go themselves – a friend of mine writes Christie pastiches as a hobby. (This isn’t just limited to her particular brand of suspense, of course; another friend has half a dozen Scandi noir mysteries for sale on Amazon.)

Oh well, I suppose I will just have to get used to being in the minority about this, along with everything else. Someone else in the Christie fan club is the writer-director Rian Johnson, whose new movie Knives Out is the purest example of knocked-off Agatha I can remember seeing on the big screen in a very long time. Johnson is best known for work in a different genre – he made the superior SF movie Looper a few years back, and was then responsible for the last main-sequence stellar conflict movie (apparently the worst movie ever to make $1.3 billion, if you believe the voices of the internet) – but if you dig down into his career he clearly has a fondness for the mystery genre. One of the good things about your last film making $1.3 billion, is that – regardless of how derided it is – you can basically write your own ticket for a while, and Johnson has made wise use of this.

The plot of Knives Out is, not surprisingly, twisty-turny stuff, but the basic set-up goes a little something like this. Famous and successful mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, the morning after his eighty-fifth birthday party, apparently by his own hand. The police make the necessary enquiries, interviewing his various children and their partners (Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette amongst them); it soon becomes apparent that nearly everyone in the family had a reason for wanting the old man dead – but they also all have alibis for the time of his demise, and there is no forensic evidence of any foul play. The cops are inclined to list the whole thing as a suicide and go about their business, but also on the scene is renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, deploying an accent as outrageously thick as his pay packet for the next Bond movie), who is convinced there is more going on (not least because some unknown individual has retained him to consult on the case). He confides all this to Harlan’s former nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has her own insights into the family’s somewhat unusual internal dynamics – and, from Blanc’s point of view, the useful psychological quirk that she is incapable of telling a lie without experiencing an alarming degree of projectile emesis. Can Blanc and Marta crack the case? Is there even a case to be cracked?

As you can perhaps discern, all the essential elements of the classic country house murder mystery are present, making this a recreation of a form which was probably creaking a bit even before the Second World War. In those terms it probably sounds like a bemusing folly, the continuing popularity of the genre notwithstanding, but Johnson is smart enough to be aware of this and deftly update the form for a modern audience. Part of his response is to ground the film firmly in the present day: there are jokes about the alt-right and snowflakes, and references to the modern political situation in the US; if you look hard enough, there is a sardonic subtext about the tension between established, entitled American citizens and the immigrant workers they are so reliant on. Of course, this may mean the film is liable to date rather quickly, but I suspect this is incidental enough to the plot for it not to be a major problem.

The other notable thing about Knives Out is how knowing it is: the film isn’t desperately ironic, but it is fully aware of how camply absurd Christie-style plotting is, and makes it work by embedding it in a film with its film firmly in its cheek. This borders on being a full-blown comedy thriller, with a lot of very funny moments mixed in with the detective work and exposition. The family are a collection of comic grotesques, while Craig turns in one of the biggest performances of his career so far. Just how much fun he is having playing Blanc is palpably clear, and one could easily imagine a post-Bond career where he swaggers his way through another film like this every few years; rumour has it that talks regarding a follow-up are already taking place. Craig pitches it just a bit too big to be credible, but big enough to be so entertaining you don’t really care; Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael J Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans follow his lead. That some of the other participants turn in much more naturalistic performances without the film collapsing into a mess of jarring styles is also to Johnson’s credit.

It seems that you can still make this kind of story work for a modern audience: the trick is not to try and make it terribly relevent to contemporary concerns, but to embrace the confected nature of the form and run with it, concentrating above all else on simple entertainment value. It sounds simple, but this is a ferociously clever, witty film, both in its mechanics and in terms of the sly games it plays with the audience. Fingers crossed that it connects with cinema-goers to the extent that it deserves to; the early signs are good. As noted, I am agnostic about Agatha Christie and that whole subgenre of mystery fiction, but I still had a whale of a time watching Knives Out; I imagine most people will have a similar experience.

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The good thing about going to see a film called Halloween on the actual day of Halloween is that you can be pretty certain you’re at or near the peak when it comes the appropriacy of your choice of movie. The bad news, if you fill the long hours by maintaining a light-hearted film review blog, is that your thoughts on the film are likely to be of little real topical interest to anyone stumbling across them – who cares about Halloween once we hit early November, anyway? Everyone is just busy growing moustaches or writing novels.

Yet here we are: Halloween, directed by David Gordon Green, and produced by Blumhouse, a company which currently rules the roost when it comes to making ultra-lucrative low-budget horror films (they also made the really good non-genre movie Whiplash). As you are doubtless aware, this is far from the first film entitled Halloween to be unleashed upon the public. The new Halloween is the tenth sequel to the original 1978 film – this is another example of a follow-up having exactly the same title as the film it’s based on, something which only seems to happen with John Carpenter movies (see also The Thing).

The new movie takes the Godzilla-esque approach of disregarding the nine previous films in the series (which wandered off into some fairly peculiar territory and didn’t all share continuity anyway) and being a direct sequel to the 1978 one. It opens with a couple of self-regarding and pretentious online journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) visiting a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane in order to attempt to interview Michael Myers, who has been incarcerated there for forty years after murdering five people for no apparent reason on Halloween night.

Michael’s shrink, Dr Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), has become fascinated by his patient, but warns the journos that the killer is ‘dormant’ and has not spoken in all his time at the facility. And indeed he refuses to respond to their questions, even when one of them produces the shrivelled remains of the mask he wore while committing his crimes (this is, famously, a William Shatner mask painted white). This is, by the way, a superbly orchestrated scene: the iconic mask is brandished like some kind of unholy fetish, with the other inmates of the facility stirred into a frenzy of moans and whines and a distinct sense of some primordial evil being summoned back into existence. The smash cut to the title card and the appearance of Carpenter’s justly famous theme music puts the shine on a very strong opening which the film largely does justice to.

The thing about a Halloween movie is that it’s easy to get carried away and over-plot it: these films are basically about the bogeyman, an apparently unstoppable force of pure evil who kills for no rational reason. Previous sequels introduced notions of occult curses and Michael being fixated on killing members of his own family, this latter idea being introduced to rationalise his extended pursuit of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), as increasingly laborious methods of putting new spins on the basic idea. The new film makes reference to the idea of Michael and Laurie being siblings, but dismisses it as an urban legend.

Instead, it seems that Laurie was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and has paid the price for it ever since: forty years on from the first movie, she is a damaged, paranoid woman whose relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) – she has basically turned into Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, obsessed with preparations for the time when Michael inevitably returns.

And, of course, he does, although you have to cut the film some slack and accept that the authorities would decide to transfer Michael Myers to a new facility on October 30th, just in time for him to attain his freedom (in one of many call-backs to the original film, exactly how this happens is left somewhat enigmatic), suit up in his mask and overalls, and begin to carve a swathe through the good people of the town of Haddonfield…

Now, I’m no more a fan of the occult curse or long-lost sister plotlines than most people, but they do give Michael (credited, as is usual, as ‘the Shape’) something to do beyond just carving up random people (to be fair, he broadens his palette to include garrotting, strangulation, and blunt-force trauma this time around). Carving people up at random just about works for a film where the protagonists are unsuspecting everypersons being menaced, but here there is a much stronger element of role-reversal: both Laurie and the local sheriff (Will Patton) are tooled up and actively hunting Michael, giving an odd double tension to the film.

The film is really at its best in the extended sequences leading up to Michael’s actual attacks (which are, you will not be surprised to learn, frequent). At these points the film basically becomes a battle of wits between the viewer and the director as the latter attempts to mislead and surprise the former – is Michael going to turn out to be in the closet? Is he outside in the garden? Lurking on the stairs? Green is rather good at this, and restores a good deal of presence and menace to one of the great horror icons of the 70s and 80s – less annoying than Freddy Krueger, less of a fantastical cartoon than Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers is practically shy and retiring as far as homicidal forces of pure evil go, and the film carefully walks the line between depicting Michael as an exceptional but still human threat, and suggesting he is the vessel for some supernatural power.

Also getting good material is Jamie Lee Curtis, and the clash between these two old enemies at the climax of the film is tense and engrossing. One of the themes of the film is the baleful effect Michael has on those who come into contact with him and survive, and Curtis has a lot of meaty scenes as someone almost pathologically obsessed with refusing to even contemplate being a victim again. There is perhaps a whiff of the Unique Moment about the film, with three generations of Strode women coming together to combat perhaps the ultimate predatory male, but then I suppose the whole trope of the Final Girl represents this in some way.

For the most part, though, this is a film which feels quite self-consciously retro in its approach to the story – an act of reverence towards one of the foundational texts of American horror cinema. It revisits the old beats rather than doing anything especially innovative, but does so very well – the only issue being that Haluk Bilginer, to some extent filling the Donald Pleasence role in the plot, ain’t no Donald Pleasence. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging and scary film and one that discharges its obligations with some style. I can imagine the Halloween franchise advancing into the future for many years to come, propelled by remakes and sequels and reimaginings, assuming that those responsible for it treat it with the same kind of care and respect shown here.

 

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