Review – Knives Out, Northampton Filmhouse, 19th December 2019

KO PosterRegular readers (bless you!) of my blog will know that I am an Agatha Christie fan and am currently re-working my way through her oeuvre on my Agatha Christie Challenge. So it was a no-brainer that I would want to see Rian Johnson’s homage to her style, Knives Out. And, in the best tradition of not telling you whodunit, I promise I won’t! Mr Johnson made us promise at the beginning of the film anyway, and I’m not going to be the one who told you that the policeman did it. (Damn!!!)

A very grim familyIt may be an homage to Christie but the first few scenes are pure Sleuth, mixed with a spot of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. The walls of the Thrombey family mansion are crammed with posters celebrating the works of the great writer and patriarch Harlan Thrombey, and there’s even one of those laughing sailor dolls lurking around, which made me think this was going to become a psychological two-hander. But, no – the doll is mere window dressing, and there’s precious little that’s psychological about the plot – the motive is much more basic than that. Poirot would actually be really disappointed.

HarlanSo, who killed Harlan Thrombey? That’s not a spoiler – he’s revealed with his throat slit within the first minute of action. At least it’s one of those thrillers that starts with the crime and works backwards, which is much more likely to arrest your attention than when you get all the clues and motives first and then the crime happens about an hour later. And there’s indeed a host of suspects, brought to life by a star-strangled cast, each one outperforming the others in terms of their suspiciousness and lack of likeability.

A grim familyAnd that’s a major problem with the film as I see it. The suspects are all (bar one) varying degrees of unpleasant, and heavily caricatured – Rian Johnson has said that the hokey cult 1970s musical Something’s Afoot, which was a Christie spoof populated by stereotypes, was an influence on this film, and I think it works to its detriment. There’s only one sympathetic suspect – and it very much turns into her story – but the rest of them are so vile that they deserve everything coming to them. It was this lack of interest in the characters’ outcomes that decided Mrs Chrisparkle to give in and go to sleep after hanging on for the first 90 minutes.

Blanc and MartaYes, there are some wonderfully quirky moments. I enjoyed Detective Blanc’s rendition of Losing My Mind from Sondheim’s Follies whilst waiting in the car; these cops obviously enjoy their musical theatre as there’s also a fleeting reference to Hamilton. There’s a comic moment in the heat of the final denouement which is very nicely done (although completely predictable). A suspect deliberately stomping through the mud to obliterate footprints is very funny. But, on the whole, the film comes across as overwhelmingly dark – not dark as in film noir, but dark as in why doesn’t someone open the curtains – and what’s meant to suggest suspense and eeriness just ends up being gloomy. It lacks light and shade, as though its dial is firmly set to murky.

JoniAs Detective Blanc, Daniel Craig has adopted a vocal drawl unlike any other known to man – kudos to him for keeping it up for over two hours. It’s an engaging performance nonetheless, although at times he feels a little more like Clouseau than Poirot. More entertaining vocal tics come from the constricted cords of Toni Collette, as Joni the Insta Influencer, and it was a pleasure to see Frank Oz in the cameo role of the Thrombey family lawyer. But it’s Ana de Armas as Marta who makes the film watchable as the only character with whom we can really connect, and her marvellous performance smashes the movie into the realms of 3 stars from me.

CopsAs for the solution to this heinous crime – well, as a Facebook relationship status might confess, it’s complicated, and I challenge anyone to answer successfully the question that Mrs C put to me on the way home – so, whodunit? – in full. I had to re-read the synopsis online twice in order to be certain that I fully understood exactly who was guilty of what. Gimme the ballAnd, believe me, I was paying attention. It must have been the accents.

Backbeat, the word on the street says this could be the first in a series of films featuring Detective Blanc. They may have to consider subtitles.

Another film seen – Skyfall

SkyfallIf you are a regular visitor to these pages, dear reader, you will know that we don’t go to the cinema much. In fact, the last time was approximately 22 months ago, and I don’t even think I’ve watched a film all the way through on dvd or on tv since then. I’ve always considered the cinema to be an inferior art to the theatre by virtue of the fact that it isn’t live. When you see a play, it is actually happening, then and there right in front of your eyes (or behind a tall man in front of you if you happen to be in Row C of the Milton Keynes theatre stalls). But a film isn’t real. You can’t go close to the stage and get spat at by the actors. Every performance is identical – the actors cannot grow into their characters as a run gets longer. There is no possibility of a mishap. That shared experience of interaction between the audience and the cast becomes just a one-way street.

However, there’s a lot you can do on a cinema screen that you can’t do on a stage. You can transport the audience to exciting locations. You can depict extraordinary effects. You can make it seem like a man can fly with no strings attached. You can safely engulf a building in flames or plunge deep into water and stay dry. But mainly, as it seems to me at the moment, you can crisply and cleanly kill lots of people without an instant’s thought as to the consequences.

Judi DenchI’d forgotten how much I loathe cinema violence. Even before Skyfall started, the four or five trailers we saw that were considered suitable for a 12A certificate each contained scenes of violence. Even the “comedy” film they were trailing (didn’t look that funny to me) started off with several instances of people being punched in the face. I’m afraid I find it all very depressing. At some point in recent years the comedic effect of slipping on a banana skin (riotously funny I’m sure you’ll agree) has become a much more painful reality. Wit has been sacrificed for action. So many people die in your average action film nowadays that I’m surprised they’re not all sponsored by funeral directors.

Take Skyfall for example – the opening, action-packed, chase scene has a vast number of instances of destruction on the streets of Istanbul; true, I don’t think you saw anyone actually die, but all those car accidents, damage to peoples’ shops and wares in the bazaar, and then the digger on the roof of the train terrorising its passengers, will all have led to massive injuries and a severely overworked Turkish Health Service. And if you say to me it’s just entertainment, and that you’re not meant to think that deeply about those unseen consequences, I will reply that’s a major reason for the increase in general violence in our society today.

Javier Bardem Rant over. I know I’m an old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t get out much. Actually I get out a huge amount, but you get my drift. You won’t believe how long it has been since I last saw a Bond film. I think I’ve seen them all up until… Diamonds are Forever, which is 1971 according to wikipedia. James Bond’s no longer Scottish, who knew! But the reviews of Skyfall have been very positive, and with nothing much else to do on Sunday afternoon, we thought we’d give it a try.

Fresh rant: I hate it now that when you go to your local Vue you get no sense of the artistry of cinema whatsoever. The box office (ha!) is now a basically a long bar that is an homage to gluttony. Every supersized sugary drink you could ever not need, combined with the biggest range of chocolates and sweets all paying reverence to a bottomless pit containing metric tonnes of syrupy popcorn. The assistant looks shocked when you just ask for tickets to the film. I used to mock the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle when she would complain bitterly that they never show you to your seat anymore – but she was right, it was one of the first symptoms of that slippery slope that today means you have to fumble around trying to find your seats whilst fat cinemagoers lunge to protect their two hours’ worth of calories as you try to squeeze past.

Albert Finney And breathe, and relax. Destruction aside, that first scene of Skyfall is amazing. Seriously, if they (presumably) had to observe some health and safety precautions it must have taken meticulous care to produce that extraordinary race around Istanbul and the Grand Bazaar. The scene ends with a gunshot and the wounded body plummeting into a river, where you see it plunging down a vast waterfall. I ask you, how on earth did he manage to survive that? Ridiculous!

Berenice Lim Marlohe Nevertheless, it’s a pretty good story all in all, and it held my attention throughout. There were a few scenes that I thought were a little too long – I got a bit bored in the long preamble to the final encounter between the good guys and the bad guys, and Mrs C thought the opening credits took away all the momentum of the first scene. As an old mate pointed out, Bond films are still as sexist as hell – the scene where a woman is murdered whilst balancing a glass of whisky on her head, with Bond’s reaction: “waste of a good whisky” kind of leaves a dirty taste in the mouth. I did like the way that earlier Bond gadgets made a reappearance though – I found that quite reassuring. The acting was very good – I particularly liked Judi Dench’s M – she could make reading the Argos catalogue sound like Shakespeare, and it was good that you got to see both her tough exterior and vulnerable insides. Javier Bardem was a suitably snide and vindictive villain, and there was excellent support from Rory Kinnear as Tanner, M’s assistant, Ben Whishaw as Q and Albert Finney as Bond’s parents’ old gamekeeper. I thought Berenice Lim Marlohe was going to turn out to be an excellent new Bond girl – alas I was wrong, more’s the pity. To be honest, I’m still grieving for Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Daniel CraigAnd what of Daniel Craig? Gentle reader you will already have made up your mind years ago as to whether he’s good at this game – but actually the only time I’ve seen him before was when he waited for the Queen during the Olympics Opening Ceremony. In comparison to the suave, sophisticated and, let’s face it, smug Sean Connery, he’s a very terse, unshowy Bond. Economic with the communication skills, he’s actually much more like what I would imagine your typical secret service “spy” to be like. Although to be fair I think I do actually know a spy in real life and he’s not like that at all! I enjoyed Daniel Craig’s performance very much and particularly liked seeing the unfit, not-up-to-scratch Bond of the early part of the film – makes you think there’s hope for everyone.

So we both enjoyed the film, despite a few heavily far-fetched moments (surviving that initial gunshot, derailing an empty underground train) and despite the wanton death and destruction of men, women and property. I wonder how many security guards were shot dead in the course of that film? You know they’d only be on minimum wage too. It’s not right.

Given I haven’t seen any Bond movies between Diamonds are Forever and Skyfall, tell me two or three really good ones from the years in between that I ought to see – I’d appreciate your suggestions!