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Posts Tagged ‘Rian Johnson’

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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(I don’t know, you wait ages for a review of a movie about time travel, and then two come along at exactly the same moment messing up each others’ causality and changing their own endings. Tut.)

Yet more evidence of dodgy judgement at the UK’s premiere cinema chain named after the Greek word for theatre: never mind their fondness for not showing Jason Statham movies, converting perfectly lovely foyers into coffeeshops, and not employing nearly enough (or indeed any) ushers to keep the vast numbers of foreign students who patronise their establishments quiet, they’ve also decided not to show Rian Johnson’s Looper at any of their standard cinemas.

I really wanted to see this film, given the subject matter and glowing reviews it’s received, and so there was nothing to do but attempt to get to Oxford’s out-of-town multiplex, an undertaking I have never before attempted without the benefit of a lift. To cut a long story short, two bus rides, a reasonably long walk, some unplanned hitch-hiking and a possible unexpected appearance on The Super League Show later, I found my way to said establishment.

(The Oxford Vue is not quite as lovely on the inside as its Cribbs Causeway counterpart, but the seats and facilities are still notably better than the ones at the sweetshop and the coffeeshop – especially since the refurb of the latter. )

Anyway, the epic journey turned out to be worth it as Looper is that rare beast, a good, intelligent SF film that works as a satisfying genre movie too. Our protagonist is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an inhabitant of Kansas City in the year 2044 and on the face of it a fairly nasty piece of work – a drug addict who funds his habit by working as a mob executioner, or ‘Looper’. Why this unusual nomenclature? Well, therein lies the tale.

Joe’s employers are based in 2074, by which point time travel has been invented. In order to confound the cops in that year, when the syndicates want someone eliminated, they have him zapped back to 2044 where he is instantly killed by Joe or another Looper and his body disposed of. However, there is a catch – to protect themselves, sooner or later the mob always send the 2074 version of the Looper back in time to be killed by their younger self (this basically constitutes a termination of contract in more ways than one).

Most often the Looper executes himself without even realising it until it’s too late – but mistakes do happen, and the consequences for everyone involved are severe (Johnson includes a sequence of bravura nastiness and ingenuity early on to illustrate this point). Inevitably the day dawns when Joe finds himself sighting along his blunderbuss barrel at… himself.

But the future Joe (played by Bruce Willis) is not just here to be another victim – there are very particular things he wants to do very badly now he’s back in 2044. Can young Joe figure out what his elder self is up to? And even if he can, can he really bring himself to end his own life this way?

Well, the first thing one must say is that, unless you just treat time travel as a plot device to get you to the scene of an adventure, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a story usingĀ  it which actually makes sense. Even the first Terminator, which seems to have been an influence on this film and is generally pretty coherent, got accused recently by an acquaintance of not making any logical sense. And while Looper has a pretty good stab at explaining why it is that future Joe doesn’t remember everything that’s going to have happened in the film on account of his already will having-had been there as young Joe (oh, time travel, gotta love the grammar), the same is broadly true: most of the details don’t really hang together.

On the other hand, Looper‘s consistent inventiveness, wit and style do a tremendous job, not necessarily of covering this up, but ensuring you’re not actually that bothered by it. The storytelling manages to be both clear and surprising, setting up a complicated scenario with commendable speed and economy and then constantly finding new spins and angles on it. On top of this, the movie’s action sequences are also solidly put together and genuinely exciting.

What really makes the film work are the central performances – Jeff Daniels has a great extended cameo as a very laid back crime-boss from the future, but most of the work is done by the leads. Emily Blunt deploys an extremely decent American accent as a character who’s crucial to the second half of the story, and manages to be more than just decorative. Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a sterling performance, all the moreso given the constraints on him – for one thing, he’s wearing prosthetics to make him look a bit more like a young Bruce Willis, and for another, he’s not just playing Joe, he’s playing Willis playing Joe. The prosthetics are not 100% convincing but the performance is. Bruce Willis himself is at the absolute top of his game in this film – watching him here you remember just how good he can be, both as a straight actor and an action movie star.

The presence of Willis, plus a few other elements, really put one in mind of the early films of M Night Shyamalan (before he completely lost the plot) – is this to suggest that Looper concludes with a monumental twist? I fear I cannot in all decency confirm or deny this. In any case, this is a startlingly good and clever piece of film-making that entertains and surprises virtually non-stop for two hours. Recommended.

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