Tag Archives: Mystery

Knives Out

[4.5 stars]

Director and writer Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) began life as a humble indie director of such wonderfully dark and unique pieces like Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper. His foray into the force, while not yet completely over, wasn’t his most comfortable habitat. With Knives Out he has returned to his more natural setting.

Knives Out is subtly clever, amid some outright funny moments and twists. It is unapologetically modeled on TV mysteries like Murder She Wrote, Columbo, or Midsommer Murders (to name a very few) from its teaser opening to its act breaks. In many ways, it is an American remake of Gosford Park, but it isn’t entirely satiric. It is, in fact, in equal measure, an homage while recognizing the forced nature of the genre.

But, of course, this kind of story only works with a solid cast and a unique detective.

Enter Daniel Craig (Spectre ) as the “famous” detective. He is quick-witted and observant, but often gathering his understanding by simply stirring the pot. Lakeith Lee Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) and Noah Segan are his on-loan police officers who fascilitate, but aren’t necessarily competent or professional. Segan, in particular, has some fun moments in this capactiy.

And then there are the suspects of Christopher Plummer’s (Boundaries) unusual death. As you might expect, they are primarily his family. The motley crew are all unique characters brought to life by Chris Evans (Gifted, Endgame), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Michael Shannon (The Current War), Don Johnson (Book Club), and Toni Collette (Velvet Buzzsaw), with Katherine Langford (Love, Simon) and Jaeden Lieberher (It) in the two younger roles. Many get to play against type, particularly Evans. But all are having a lot of fun.

And then, of course, you need the innocent under attack that our intrepid detective must exonerate lest justice go astray. For that role we have Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049) who delivers a great and layered performance with both depth and comedy.

There are also some nice bit parts from Riki Lindhome (Garfunkle and Oats) , K Callan, and Marlene Forte (My Last Day Without You), to name only a few.

And, believe it or not, I’ve only provided info here you get in the first five minutes of the film. And, of course, it isn’t as straight-forward as it may sound or it wouldn’t be a Rian Johnson script.

Suffice to say, Knives Out is clever and entertaining, with excellent pacing and a love of what it is doing. From its opening moments to its closing shot, it pulls you along without respite. Make time for this over the holidays, it is definitely worth your time. And it isn’t a remake, a sequel, a reboot, origin story, or spin-off…how’s that for a treat these days?

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

[3 stars]

Girl power should beat out just about anything these days at the box office…in theory at least. Unfortunately, though it is entertaining, this third go-round for the Angels, sheapharded by Elizabeth Banks (Brightburn), is unevn and unfocused. The fault is really very much with Banks’s script and her control of the vision. I’ll circle back on this, but I want to be sure to give her cast their due first.

Her current angels were all pretty solid: Kristen Stewart (Lizzie) and Naomi Scott (Aladdin) were paired with relative newcomer (though she held her own well), Ella Balinska. Stewart is the bright spot here, spewing humor and action in equal measure confidently. We never entirely get to know her, but that is by design. She still becomes the glue for the trio and keeps the energy and pace up throughout the story.

Unsurprisingly, the men are in this tale to serve the women’s stories. This makes them all just a bit superficial, though each with moments. Sam Claflin (Their Finest) and Patrick Stewart (The Kid Who Would Be King) are the larger roles. Claflin is a bit broad in his delivery, while Stewart is a bit low in energy to carry his part. Neither is awful, but both could have been directed better.

In smaller, but fun, roles Luis Gerardo Méndez (Murder Mystery), Noah Centineo (To Al the Boys I Loved Before), Jonathan Tucker (Veronika Decides to Die) and Chris Pang (Crazy Rich Asians) really shine for their humor. Each also adds some unspoken depth to their bit parts.

So, back to Banks and her script and directorial choices. The script itself is frustrating in its flow. There are far too many failures and odd decisions for our heroes. The overall intention could have been worked out better and with a few more positives, particularly as Scott’s character is being pulled ever-deeper into the Agency. But that was the minor problem.

The larger issue was one of style. This movie couldn’t settle on whether it was an action movie with humor, a comedy with action, or a broad satire of the series. The first movie and it’s sequel found the  line they wanted to walk and tightroped it much more elegantly. Banks is all over the place and constantly mis-stepping by doing things like cracking jokes about someone who just died rather than allowing the moment to add a darker edge and reality to the fantasy.

It’s clear from the opening that the intention of the movie is to empower women. Charlie’s Angels is tailor made for that intent, but it needed a much stronger hand and a sharper script to succeed. That doesn’t mean this isn’t fun or funny, or even clever and exciting at times, but it whiplashes between intents leaving you unsure of what you’re watching and how best to engage with the story. That keeps you at an unfortunate distance without a chance to fully engage with the women and their triumphs and losses on screen.

The Good Liar

[3 stars]

In all the decades of their careers, it is unimaginable to realize that Helen Mirren (Anna) and Ian McKellen (Lear, All is True) have never appeared together in a film. It is long past time, but I wish it had been with a better vehicle.

The problem with The Good Liar isn’t its acting, its directing, or its production values. The problem is that you know way too much going in. As Hitchcockian as this story is (and that is already too much to know), it struggles to surprise in part because of the caliber of the cast. A cast that, I will happily say, included Russell Tovey  (Years and Years), who is starting to get some dues.

Bill Condon (The Greatest Showman) managed the story well from the director’s chair. I wish, however, that writer Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) had had the guts to rework the story more completely from its source. He should have accepted the reality of today’s audience and how the film would have been marketed and realized we needed the story from more than just McKellen’s perspective. The mysteries and classic vibe could have remained, but the cat-and-mouse game would have been ever so much more delicious if we were included more all around.

You should still see this film. It is classically put together and impeccably performed. Just know it is also exactly what you expect, and don’t expect it to be more.

Motherless Brooklyn

[3.5 stars]

Are you craving a classic noir with a patina of modern times to it? Then you’re in luck, this is very much a noir, tempered with contemporary sensibilities and commentary. For his sophomore directorial outing and writing debut, Edward Norton (Collateral Beauty) tackled a monster. It may have taken 20 years to drag Johathan Lethem’s book to screen, but it found its time, especially in theme.

To make the result more impressive, Norton also stars in the film as a physically and emotionally complicated, aspiring detective on a mission. The film is also told almost entirely through his perspective, making his directorial accomplishments even more impressive…there is almost no scene he isn’t in.

But Norton also loaded the cast with talent. Top among those is Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color). She is wicked smart, but also the damsel in distress with which his life gets entangled.

Several smaller roles bring the story and world to life as well.  Michael Kenneth Williams (Assassin’s Creed) brings entertainment in character and music. Willem Dafoe (Vox Lux) and  Cherry Jones (The Beaver) create poles around which information and plot flows. And, of course, Bruce Willis (Glass) gets it all moving along with a hardboiled kick.

Only Bobby Cannavale (I, Tonya, Ant-Man) and Alec Baldwin (BlacKkKlansman) felt wrong to me. Cannavale was just too obvious…possibly the fault of script and directing more than the actor, but it diminished his work. And Baldwin was probably the only complete miscast in the film. He does fine, but his very presence (and probably on purpose) evokes his SNL persona of the last few years. When they began production, Norton probably had no sense of how popular that satire would become, but it worked against him here. While appropriate for the tale and the point, it pulled me out of the film multiple times.

Overall, this is both a period detective movie and a modern commentary. It makes the plot somewhat predictble and obvious, but not in a destructive way, just a familiar one. And the more you know of New York City history and politics (I’m talking about you, Robert Moses), the more you can pull from the story which is only a thinly veiled retelling of the past…way closer to reality than you might expect. I’m not entirely sure why it was all veiled given how close it is to the truth, but there you go.

The film does take its pacing queues from the past, but it manages to keep the tension high and the mystery intriguing which makes the 2.5 hours move along as you stumble with Norton through the dark and glorious sets that recreate the NYC of old. If you like old movies and want to see something different from the majority fare currently in theaters, this is a solid choice.

Tickled

[3 stars]

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve take us on a strange and funny journey of investigative journalism. It all starts innocently enough for Farrier, but then things go strange. Then stranger. Then downright bizarre. That I found this movie because of its trailer on Hail Satan? should give you a sense of the tone.

If you like odd tales of humanity with a bit of a mystery twist and a real sense of dark humor, you should make time for this true story. Honestly, it’s just best to dive into it without knowing a thing because, well, it’s just that odd.

Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries

[3 stars]

This expansion of the Miss Fisher mysteries by Acorn TV isn’t awful, but it isn’t the Miss Fisher we knew and loved. It is simply a fun set of mysteries and characters.

The core issue is the title character. Geraldine Hakewill is fine, but she doesn’t have even a small portion of the energy and charisma that Essie Davis brought to the original character. And though surrounded by a fun group of well-executed characters, she just doesn’t dominate the stories the way she needs to for this role.

Basically, much like The ABC Murders, Acorn is trying to capitalize on a property without being able to deliver the same quality. It is a shame as the story and characters are entertaining…they’re just not what you want or hope for even though it is substantially the same production crew from the original.

Geraldine Hakewill in Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries (2019)

Another Life

[3 stars]

Imagine Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Nightflyers all melded into one. In many ways, this is what Nighflyers wanted to be, but missed on so many levels. But Another Life is much more space opera than it is science fiction. Science is, at best, a convenient idea to be used or changed as needed (yes, even worse than Star Trek because it feels more like science fiction). Knowing that going in, despite the trappings of the show, will keep you from getting agitated later (assuming you care about such things).

Katee Sackhoff  (2036: Origin Unknown) delivers a complex and strong female leader. Admittedly, the script has her doing some stupid things at times, but her emotional core is solid. The rest of the shipboard cast, with two exceptions, do well too. Samuel Anderson (Doctor Who, DCI Banks) navigates a difficult road to sentience…your mileage may vary on the results, but it is still a complicated performance. Likewise Blu Hunt, A.J. Rivera, Alex Ozerov (Cardinal), and JayR Tinaco created shipboard life that is at once interesting and, in some ways, ridiculous. But that is more a problem of the Space Opera approach than it is the actors.

Unfortunately, there were also some weaker, or at least uneven performances as well. Top among those were Jake Abel (Love & Mercy) and Jessica Camacho (The Flash). Neither had a subtle bone in their body and, in the case of Abel especially, no presence whatsoever. Back on Earth, Selma Blair (Anger Management), who I normally enjoy, was just as imprecise and unreal in her pivotal role, which was a shame.

The other main Earth-locked cast was fairly solid. Justin Chatwin (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and the young Lina Renna make a great anchor for Sackhoff’s character.

Creator Aaron Martin has a diverse writing background on shows from Degrassi: The Next Generation, to Being Erica, and SyFy romp Killjoys. He isn’t afraid to push limits or relationships and it shows. This series takes a very matter-of-fact approach to the broad spectrum of sexuality that only Sense8 has really challenged in the genre so far. This isn’t the driver for the action, but it certainly adds some nice aspects to the characters and story.

The story also attempts, rather ham-handedly to be honest, to raise the challenge of understanding an alien mind. How much human psychology can you assign to actions and questions an alien raises? How closely will AI evolve to be like or dislike its creators?

I can’t say I ever was sure of the title: Another Life. It has interesting resonance throughout the story, changing as it goes. By the end of this first series I was still unsure of the intention, but had flipped through various options. Perhaps that was the point, but it never felt reflected in the characters.

This show is also a great example of being better streaming than it would have been on broadcast. The story is relentless, ending episodes on intriguing points or cliffhangers and starting off, often, with new situations. In other words, it pulls you along nicely for a binge. If, however, it had been released on a 1-a-week schedule, it would never have hooked in a audience because of that rhythm.

For some interesting distraction, this is a fun series. I’m hoping that it not only gets a second round, but that they learn from this first and take the scripts up a notch. It wouldn’t take much to take it to a higher level and really build out a franchise.

Summer of Rockets

[3 stars]

The first three-quarters of this limited series are both intriguing and engaging. We are introduced to a complex group of people in an intriguing historical period and provided just enough plot to keep us wondering where the heck things are going to go. And then it takes a turn. It is a fair turn in retrospect, but the resolution and motivations are, at best, forced.

Despite the sort of non-ending provided, the rest of the ride is actually interesting and the cast is chock full of solid performers. Among them is Keeley Hawes (Mrs. Wilson) who appears to be in just about every BBC show these days. But the tale revolves more around Toby Stephens’ (Vexed, Lost in Space) Petrukhin, a Russian-Jewish inventor trying to make a place for himself and his family in 1950s British society. A far from easy task.

Along with Linus Roache (Mandy), Lucy Cohu (Ripper Street), Mark Bonnar (Shetland), Timothy Spall (Finding Your Feet), Claire Bloom, as well as a nice Sophomore turn for Lily Sacofsky (Bancroft) and freshman outing for Rose Ayling-Ellis, we get a look at many facets of British life, fears, and prejudices of the era. While not ground- breaking, putting a rising Jewish family at the center of the story provides a lens that we haven’t often seen through in these stories.

Whether the plot feels fair and complete to you I imagine will be a matter of expectation. I suggest you just roll with it. This starts as an intimate story and ends the same. But it certainly has a lot of meat in the middle to work with and keep you wondering and wanting more.

Veronica Mars (series 4)

[4 stars]

You just can’t keep a good detective down….or at least an obsessed one. We all thought the fan gift of the Veronica Mars movie was the end of the line for the intrepid investigator. But having left High School behind, Mars Investigations continues on in this engaging bridge season that maintains the wonderful noir sensibility of the original series, for all the good and bad that can bring.

The good is very much in the dialogue and twisty plot. Kristen Bell (How to be a Latin Lover) is as acerbic, witty, and broken as always. She and  Enrico Colantoni (Travelers) continue the father/daughter love and comedy in style. The return of Jason Dohring (iZombie) adds some character evolution and fun, while the addition of Izabela Vidovic (Wonder) provides some reflection on the once and future past.

And then there are the new characters bouncing around. Patton Oswalt (Nostalgia), Max Greenfield (What Men Want), J.K. Simmons (The Front Runner), not to mention the Pulp Fiction-esque Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Barry), Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos add plenty of pop to Neptune’s known residents.

Where it is weak is where it has always been weak. Procedural accuracy isn’t a top concern of noir, never has been. And Mars has always played loose with the rules and the realities for the sake of the mysteries. We trade that for the rest of the fun, though I’d really like to see what Rob Thomas could do with that added aspect. But all those aspects that may have brought you to Mars in the first place are still there, though admittedly not much more. But if you liked what came before, you’ll enjoy this latest expansion. And do make sure you watch the opening credits through the whole season for a subtle, small extra.

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.