MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘Knives Out’ sharp, witty whodunit packed with social satire

Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas in Knives Out / Lionsgate

The biggest mystery with writer-director Rian Johnson’s latest film “Knives Out” isn’t who done it, but rather what exactly is the movie?

Is it a self-aware murder mystery, a parody of the genre, an undercover skewering of “the one percent,” a procedural thriller, or all of the above?

No matter how you might classify the movie, it was as fun a night as I’ve had at the theater in quite a while.

If you enjoy witty dialogue delivered with a sharp bite, twists and turns that keep you just enough off base to have fun, and satirical jabs at the pampered elite, you might just have as much fun with this movie as I did.

The film is gorgeously shot, with closeups and low- and high-angle shots masterfully configured to covey doubt, indecision, possible guilt, and suspense.

The set design of the old dark house with its cluttered decor, creaky floors, and false windows wonderfully establishes the stage for all that Johnson has in store for the audience.

They film delves into nearly every familiar murder-mystery trope that you might expect, but then turns them on their head in clever and confounding ways that keep you on your toes throughout the bulk of the film. Sure some of Johnson’s pitches are telegraphed, but that keeps you all the more off guard for his next curve ball the leaves you shaking your head in delight.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell, and Katherine Langford in Knives Out / Lionsgate

The film details what at first appears to be an open-and-shut suicide of mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) after his 85th birthday party, a soiree that included him meeting individually with his children and grand-children to deliver them pieces of hard new that will affect their bank accounts.

However, renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been anonymously hired to delve into the circumstances of Thrombey’s death to check for foul play. He doesn’t know who hired him on the case and the game is afoot.

About every half hour, the film reveals a new twist that flips the game board over on the audience. Nothing is what it seems, until it finally is. The resolution to the mystery isn’t quite as satisfying as the journey, but Johnson’s deft character work and expert direction allows you to look past tiny details and just enjoy the ride.

Craig with his Foghorn Leghorn-type accent chews the scenery as Blanc in a delightful way that has me hoping for a sequel starring his southern-fried detective. Evans is nearly as strong as the black sheep of the family Ransom, Thrombey’s entitled yet charming grandson. Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette are perfectly cast as sycophant family members Richard, Walter and Joni, and Jamie Lee Curtis shines as Linda, Thrombey’s oldest and least dependent child.

However, the star of the film is Ana de Armas as Marta, Thrombey’s nurse, who is “like part of the family,” but was unfortunately not deemed worthy enough to be invited to the writer’s private funeral. Marta has a peculiar tendency to vomit whenever she tells a lie, which makes her an interesting instrument for Blanc to use in his sleuthing.

Was foul play involved in Thrombey’s death? If so, how did it happen, and who was involved? Also what about his massive fortune? Who will get it?

You’ll have to see the film to find out.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 10 min.
Grade: A-

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Classic Corner: Meet Me in St. Louis

Judy Garland and Tom Drake in Meet Me in St. Louis

“Meet Me in St. Louis” is simply the type of movie Hollywood doesn’t make any longer. Modern audiences would stand for it.

It’s homespun melodrama simply isn’t tragic enough to thrill the dominant demographic profile of the modern movie-goer.

Whether a boy will ask a girl to the dance or even the tragedy of a family having to move from its beloved St. Louis to New York City the very same year the World’s Fair is scheduled to be held in its hometown is kind of tame. It doesn’t quite measure up to the bombastic tentpole extravaganzas or hardened personal dramas that fill theaters today.

However if you are among those who love classic movies, and all their maudlin sentimentality, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a wonderful trip back to the turn of the 20th century when everything was simpler, kinder, and more cozy.

The 1944 MGM musical is probably my second-favorite Judy Garland film behind “The Wizard of Oz,” and it features the debut of one of the all-time great Christmas tunes when Garland sings the melancholy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to the adorable child star Margaret O’Brien.

The film, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary with two local screenings at 1 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Malco Razorback Cinema, is a slice-of-life story, detailing the high points during a year in the life of the Smiths, an upper middle-class family whose children are looking forward to the 1904 World’s Fair being held in St. Louis.

Much of the action centers around the courtship of Esther (Garland) by the boy next door John Truitt (Tom Drake), but the climax comes on Christmas Eve, when the youngest Smith, “Tootie” (O’Brien) has a break down because of the news that her father is being transferred to New York City and the uncertainty that will bring to the entire family.

Other songs featured in the film are “The Trolly Song” and “The Boy Next Door.” Each punctuate great scenes that showcase Garland at perhaps the apex of her career. The film is expertly directed by Vincente Minnelli, and Garland never looked better on film. No wonder the two fell and love with each other and we’re married a year later.

Interestingly enough, “Meet Me in St. Louis” was the second-highest grossing film of 1944, coming in second to another musical set around Christmastime “Going My Way,” starring Bing Crosby.