Sometimes you watch a film that has everything you want in a movie, executed perfectly. Sometimes you see a movie with an audience that’s so perfectly receptive and delightfully reactive that it reminds you of why movies were meant to be a social experience in the first place. Sometimes you see a movie that displays pure, unadulterated joy from scene to scene, without even the slightest hint of cynicism. Knives Out is a movie like that.
Rian Johnson returns to the arena of whodunit pastiche that he broke out with in Brick, but while that movie took the characterizations and plotlines of a classic Bogart-style noir and reset it in a modern high school, Knives Out is an unabashedly straightforward tribute to Agatha Christie-type stories, with a central murder mystery, a fancy manor setting, and a cast of colorful suspects who give an all-star cast the opportunity to exercise their acting muscles with reckless abandon. In this case, the central mystery is the death of novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). It appears to be suicide, but the method (he appears to have slit his own throat) and circumstances (it happened the evening after his 85th birthday party) are so unusual that the police (represented here by the deadpan Lakeith Stanfield and delightfully goofy Noah Segan) have to investigate, and their job is complicated by the fact that somehow the case has come to the attention of Benoit Blanc, a famous PI dubbed “the last of the gentlemen detectives” who decides to sit in on the questioning and examine the evidence for himself. Blanc is played by Daniel Craig with a gravy-thick Southern accent, a secure masculine swagger, and a complete obliviousness to the fact that these people might not want a flamboyant detective interfering in their business. Daniel Craig has of course reinvented James Bond for the modern era and given other memorable performances in movies like Munich, Infamous, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but he’s on another level here. It’s all the better his tenure as James Bond is coming to an end – give me a dozen more Benoit Blanc stories!
The family Blanc investigates include Harlan Thrombey’s oldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans, whose relentless jackassery inspired several moments of applause from the audience), Harlan’s other daughter Joni (Toni Collete, putting on a hilarious valley girl accent), her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), and Harlan’s youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon). Plus the maid Fran (Edi Patterson) and Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, vulnerable and engaging). All of these characters have colorful quirks that make them instantly appealing (Marta, for instance, if physically incapable of not telling the truth – she vomits whenever she tells a lie) but Rian Johnson also respects them as people enough to not become caricatures. This is one of the funniest movies of the year, but never do these characters feel like mere comedic devices or mugshots on a suspect board. Rian Johnson’s brilliant screenplay ensures every twist and turn has real human stakes behind it and ensures nothing ever seems to be happening simply for plot reasons. You may or may not be able to predict the ending, but Johnson is always playing fair.
I could go on and on for pages about how much I loved this movie. It’s a spoil of riches, from the acting to the writing to the impeccable production design and note-perfect (ha, ha) score. It’s the sort of movie that elevates your spirits and just plain makes you happy it was made (by a major studio, no less). When it opens this thanksgiving, see it, in a theatre, with the biggest audience you can. You won’t be sorry.
Gitanjali Rao’s feature-length animation debut is a bittersweet ode to the lives and dreams of working-class people in India. It envelops us into the lives and minds of its characters, using the freedom of animation to blur the lines between reality and imagination in ways that would be nearly impossible to accept in live action. Often the lack of animation aimed at mature audiences is lamented, so it’s a treasure to see an example such as this on display.
Rao follows a variety of characters whose lives intersect in various ways: a flower girl and her young sister, a Bollywood-obsessed young man from Kashmir who falls in love with the flower girl, a widowed former actress who works as an English teacher, child laborers who fear being caught by the police, and more. Some of the stories end tragically, others with bittersweetness, and still others happily. The love story in particular underlines how relationships can be sometimes be strained by the choices that have to be made by the disadvantaged in order to ensure their own survival. At other times we get glimpses into the characters’ minds and fantasies, showing how their dreams inform their actions in ways that sometimes serve as a compliment and at other times as a tragic counterpoint.
There’s not a lot of spoken dialogue in this movie. Gitanjali Rao is content to tell her story largely through image, sequence, and beautiful music. There were times when I was so captivated by the images on display that I hardly bothered to read the subtitles at all. This isn’t slick CGI – here, 2D animation used to explore what appears to be a variety of different techniques, from painting to tissue art and some that are nearly impossible to put in words. The ability to explore movies from other cultures and see what they do in areas where they aren’t constrained by American convention is one of the gifts of film festivals, and Bombay Rose is a perfect example of that in action.
Tammy’s Always Dying
Tammy MacDonald (Felicity Huffman) is a mess. Alcoholic, unemployed, a compulsive shoplifter, and near the end of every month, like clockwork, she tries to jump off the bridge near her home. Tammy’s daughter Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) tries her best to keep her grounded and safe, but as anyone who has had to deal with a troubled friend or family member can attest, that can become an increasingly difficult burden to bear (especially when, as is the case with Tammy and Catherine, their relationship was never healthy to begin with). Then Tammy is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and it all gets worse.
Amy Jo Johnson’s sophomore feature (following The Space Between in 2017) is an at times pitch black comedy-drama about grief and trauma and trying to do right by yourself and your family. Catherine tries to have a life of her own when she’s not dealing with her mother: she works at the local bar, has sex with a (married) friend, and occasionally drives to Toronto to role play being an exotic tourist at a hotel bar. She also has an affinity for trashy local TV, especially a talk show where the host speaks to his guests about their family trauma, with a focus on people who have lost abusive parents. Tammy, for her part, is constantly caught between trying to improve herself and succumbing to her worst impulses (best demonstrated in a scene that begins with her deciding to clean up the house and ends with her stealing the cash Catherine had hidden away in her dresser drawer). Felicity Huffman may be something of a liability for the movie from a PR standpoint right now, but as an actress she’s still first rate. There’s no vanity or ostentatiousness in her performance, either before or after the character has been diagnosed with cancer.
Matching her beat for beat is Anastasia Phillips (Skins, Reign) who smartly refuses to play her part for sympathy. Catherine might be better than her mother, but that doesn’t mean she is a nice person. When Phillips and Huffman play off of each other, it rings almost uncomfortably true. You can feel the history between them, and in scenes where Tammy makes a joke to Catherine about something in their past only for Catherine to reveal that it was a source of emotional pain for it, the pain feels real and you squirm in your seat because you don’t know if you are supposed to laugh or cry.
The tonal balancing act Amy Jo Johnson accomplishes here is really quite remarkable… any movie that is able to successfully pull off a scene where a character looks on in horror when they’re told that the cancer treatments are doing their job unusually well is something to be commended. Even the scenes satiric scenes involving the TV show (with such taglines as “Your Trauma Can Have Value!”) hit their marks not because of how outrageous they seem, but because they ring entirely true. What’s it like for people to make small talk backstage when they’re about to reveal their traumas to a live studio audience? What happens when an interviewee isn’t able to cry on cue, and the producers have to find other avenues to make the story compelling? These are things that obviously have to be part of these shows, but how often do we really think about them?
There are lots of comedies about death, and lots of stories where illnesses are used as vehicles to explore family dysfunction. But rarely are they done as sensitively as in Tammy’s Always Dying.
Kevin’s 2019 TIFF ranking
- Knives Out
- The Personal History of David Copperfield
- Blood Quantum
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
- Tammy’s Always Dying
- Bombay Rose
- Bring Me Home
- Hearts and Bones