“Knives Out” Whodunit Movie Review

Spectacularly crafted Whodunit! The kind of movie that would make J.B. Fletcher proud. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is a sleek modern interpretation of the a classic murder-mystery movie. He pays homage to Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries in terms of premise, but subverts what audiences expect out of a Christie mystery with his original expression, told through an outstanding screenplay complete with everything you want to get out of a Whodunit. You get it all: virtually everyone has a strong motive, plenty of deception, and a fortune at stake. Johnson displays a genuine love for Whodunits because he stays on brand by striking the proper tone and handling all the plot layers and characters with extreme care. The tone of this movie is one that is completely satirical yet never devolves into parody. Because it takes itself seriously, the moments of levity are placed with extreme precision. There are plenty of laugh out loud scenes in the movie, but the focus remains on solving the mystery of who killed Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Johnson’s satire on the obscenely wealthy class of Americans with their warped morality and ethics is highly entertaining, and will keep you amateur sleuthing along with Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). The central question in this Whodunit isn’t merely whodunit, but how could it not have been done. You just have to watch! Knives Out is a movie that did something boldly different with a classic premise and even the very act of spoofing a Whodunit. Johnson expertly crafted a highly clever plot that grows more fantastic with each moment of intrigue! You will want to watch it again to find all the clues you missed the first time around. Oh–in case you don’t recognize J.B. Fletcher, that is Angela Lansbury’s character in Murder, She Wrote, and she makes a cameo in this movie!

A detective and a trooper travel to a lush estate to interview the quirky relatives of a patriarch who died during his 85th birthday celebration.

The ability for a writer-director to master a cinematic story full of a labyrinth of layers, is truly a dying artform. In order for Johnson to have so successfully orchestrated such a spectacular whodunit, he had to study the source material films. Not source material in that this is based on a previous work–quite the opposite–it’s a wholly original story. But source material found in the hundreds of timeless film noir and murder-mystery films. Study the originals so closely that you know what tropes need to stay but also what elements can be re-interpreted for a modern audience. I can tell that every turning point in the main plot as well as every detail in the subplots was intentionally written and never left to afterthought. Johnson displays a mastery of the element of surprise. You may think you have this movie figured out, but you are likely wrong. Much like with the world’s largest, worse kept secret of the truth behind the murder in Murder on the Orient Express, it won’t take long for the secrets to be talked about at the water cooler in nearly every office.

These types of movies seem like relics of the past, the product of a long-since crumbled studio system, but Rian Johnson found a way to take the soul of what those films like The Maltese Falcon great, and channel it directly into a modern story that can provide a gripping mystery and touch on important social topics at the same time without it ever feeling preachy. Johnson never loses sight of the timeless grandeur of a serious Whodunit. While this movie takes itself seriously as a Whodunit, it is also hilariously funny. You wont’ find slapstick humor here, but well developed and fashioned drawing room humor coupled with brash candor. There are plenty of puns, one-liners, viciously funny insults the Golden Girls would be proud of, and even tell tale vomit. Some of Knives Out‘s humor is derived from the social commentary on the relationship between the 1%ers and the rest of the world. Furthermore, witty humor is born out of the relationships between individual characters and in the children/grandchildren and their grandfather. Humor that is grounded in conflict is always going to be more powerful than gag-based jokes.

Most of the performances are exemplary! Wish I could say all, but there are a few characters that are little more than furniture. If I have one gripe about the screenplay, it’s that there are 2-3 characters that do very little for the story, and pretty much just exist. If there are two standout performances in the movie, those would be Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas. Craig looked like he was having so much fun playing the southern aristocratic private investigator Benoit Blanc that I already want to see him reprise this character in another movie or even TV series! Not only did it look like he was having fun, but he remained committed to the character the entire time and never once faltered in any action or delivery. Maybe it isn’t a typical Oscar performance, but it was a command one never-the less. Just because he’s a caricature of a detective, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a stellar performance. Likewise, Armas’ Marta is a treasure to watch. Her sincerity, authenticity is unmatched by so many whom have played similar characters in the past. She completely transforms to play this nurse, and is strong, vulnerable, bold, and meek all at the same time. It takes tremendous talent to possess all those layers and never deliver one that isn’t precisely what is needed in that moment.

Now, I’d love to talk more about this movie, but I am afraid that if I go much further that I will tread close to spoiler territory. So I am going to do a little something different with this article. I am going to leave it here for now, but after the wide/general release of the film, then I can do more of a deep dive. Until then!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“A Simple Favor” full movie review

Sleek, stylish, sexy! The best “lifetime movie” ever. Either the marketing of this film was the most misleading or the most brilliant! And yes, I truly believe that lifetime movie is a legit subgenre of suspense. Dark comedy meets neo-noir in this fantastic movie. It’s twisted and fun! Thrilling and comedic, Paul Feig’s film engages in a delicate balancing act that required extreme precision to ensure that the film not make any movement, miss a beat, or gloss over a turning point that could have would up disastrous. Much in the same way Feig’s Spy struck brilliant balance between comedy and serious spy movie, he proves that he has the ability to replicate the approach. Gives me hope for the highly anticipated Spy sequel that rumor has is happening. But we will have to wait and see if that rumor comes to fruition. Containing solid performances from Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, the film also comments on the mind games woman and mothers play with one another. In fact, A Simple Favor delivers some unconventional yet thought-provoking commentary on motherhood and parenting. For all the commentary in the film, it never tries to be preachy or dogmatic about how women and mothers should behave or treat one another. Various parenting styles are played around with in hilarious ways. While the plot may seem like a satire or parody of Gone Girl, there is enough that is different that is certainly feels like a unique movie. There is nothing accidental about how all the elements came together to give us a fantastic movie; everything is intentionally executed with extreme care in order to deliver a lifetime movie that is suspenseful and, at times, slapstick funny.

Be careful when you fulfill a simple favor from a friend. Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a simple mom who’s extremely active in his son’s school and runs a successful “mommy” vlog. Emily is the director of public relations for a major fashion brand and is never active in her son’s school. Through a series of unpredictable events, Stephanie and Emily become best friends, even though on the surface, they couldn’t be any different from one another. One day, Emily asks Stephanie for a “simple favor” to pick her son up from school because of a work emergency. It soon becomes clear that Emily is not coming home. And Emily then begins a investigation into the disappearance of her friend. After the cops get involved, the mystery takes a turn for the bizarre, and Emily must find out what happened to her friend and mother Emily.

Immediately, the opening stylistic credit sequence informs me that this is not going to be a typical murder-mystery movie. The title sequence reminds me of the same one Feig used for Spy. Amidst the angular single color designs are images of women’s fashion. One of the takeaways from the trailer was the amazing costume design and fashion in the film. Setting the tone for a sexy thriller is successfully accomplished in using this imagery. It’s a throwback to the style of the 1960s spy movies that featured women in killer attire that was absolutely perfect in every way. Much like in television, movies have largely moved away from artistic opening title sequences. What I love about a creative opening title sequence is that it can set the tone for the rest of the movie. Think of it as the cover art or preface of a book. Since this movie is based on a book, I like how the opening title sequence seems to be a manifestation of the cover or opening of the book. From the opening title sequence effectively communicating the tone of what we are about to watch, the opening scenes of the film inform us precisely who Stephanie and Emily are. Stephanie is almost a caricature of an enthusiastic crazed Martha Stewart mom juxtaposed against Emily’s high-fashioned, corporate power cynical mom who still loved her kid. Conflict should derive from character interactions even before the plot creates conflict, and this film gives us two characters that provide exceptional and comedic conflict right at the beginning. The characters draw you into the story. It is obvious that the characters were developed first.

Before we even talk about the commentary on motherhood, there is a lot to explore in the respective personalities of Emily and Stephanie. Each personality and worldview is incredibly unique. What isn’t unique between the leading ladies is the fact that they are both incredibly intense individuals. Stephanie pours her tenacity into her vlog and being a “perfect mom” whereas Emily pours her energy into her career and keeping everyone who wants to gets close to her at bay. While Stephanie is enamored with Emily, she misses some indicators that there is something not quite right with Emily. But because of her desire to be friends with Emily, Stephanie chooses to overlook Emily’s bizarre behavior. Behavior that would drive the rest of us away such as being taken advantaged of, belittling, patronizing, just to name a few. There is a scene in which Emily snaps at Stephanie for taking a candid picture with an attitude that could cut glass. There is something Emily admires about Stephanie too. Stephanie’s constant positivity and genuine authenticity. Qualities that Emily does not have. And Stephanie admires the hyper-sexualization of Emily. In many ways, what makes them different, actually complements one another. Yin and Yang.

Beyond the mystery of A Simple Favor, which I won’t explore because it would spoil the plot, there is a subtext of commentary on motherhood. Both are mothers, yet one of them is clearly the femme fatal. The film sets Emily up as the femme fatal from the moment she steps out of her Porsche in the killer suit and devilish stiletto heels, topped with a fedora directly out of a film noir. Stephanie is the poster-child overachieving mom with her volunteering, smart mom outfits, and baking. Each is essentially an extreme of their respective type of mom. The unconventional intimacy between Emily and Stephanie allows Feig to have the support for the dramatic shifts and turning points in the plot. Whether you may be a dedicated stay-at-home mom (which, can be a full-time job–let’s be honest) or a jet-setting corporate work-life balance mom, the pressures of motherhood (or more broadly parenting for all the fathers out there) can bring out the worst in someone. While day spas, laughter, makeovers, or a glass of wine on a balcony may be perfectly fine most of the time to provide relief from the stresses of parenthood, sometimes a mom (or dad) needs something a bit more engaging, tawdry, hair-let-down, steamy, and intriguing. Something that provides some much-needed disorder to keep things interesting. And that is precisely what happens in A Simple Favor. Instead of taking either extreme position from which to be a parent, perhaps the best answer lies somewhere in the middle. Don’t forget that even overachievers need to let their hair down.

If you enjoyed Gone Girl and Spy, then you will undoubtedly enjoy this brilliant thriller that is both suspenseful and funny. Paul Feig is proving that he can consistently walk that fine line between comedy and thriller or comedy and suspense in order to deliver films that take themselves seriously as both a comedy and a more serious work. Furthermore, Feig proves that he can provide an excellent platform for charismatic female actors to showcase the range of their talent. A Simple Favor delivers a plot that is simple yet contains many intricate pieces and surprise reveals. You will be completely engaged the whole time.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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