Knives Out

Written, produced, and directed by Rian Johnson best known for 2005’s Brick and 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out is a modern take on the classic murder mystery whodunit that has a brilliant script with many twists and a terrific ensemble cast, making for one of the most entertaining movies in recent memory. Similar to an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the story revolves around the mysterious death of a wealthy crime novelist named Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer, whose entire dysfunctional family are gathered together for his 85th birthday in his remote grand old mansion in Massachusetts. After discovering his body in what looks like a suicide, the police led by Detective Lieutenant Elliot, played by Lakeith Stanfield, as well as a stereotypical Southern private detective named Benoit Blanc, played by a very memorable Daniel Craig, begin an investigation to see whether there was foul play so they begin interviewing each member of the family. There is the oldest daughter Linda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who has an air of self-importance; Linda’s husband Richard, played by Don Johnson, who may be having an affair; the youngest son Walt, played by Michael Shannon, who runs his father’s publishing company but feels underappreciated; and the daughter-in-law Joni, played by Toni Collette, who always tries to ingratiate herself to her father-in-law who financially supports her and her daughter. Equally unique characters, the younger generation is comprised of the spoiled socialite Ransom, played by Chris Evans; the conservative Internet troll teenager Jacob, played by Jaeden Martell; and the liberal college student Meg, played by Katherine Langford. Detective Blanc, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s famous detective character Hercule Poirot, is a rather funny character who is brilliant but sometimes is a over-the-top buffoon throughout his investigation in which nobody is eliminated as a suspect. An unexpected central character of the plot is Harlan’s young Hispanic caregiver Marta, played by Ana de Armas, who genuinely cares for Harlan unlike his rather unpleasant money-grubbing family. The filmmaker does an excellent job of having the eccentric characters play off one another as they are really competing to see who will benefit the most financially from Harlan’s will. Besides the excellent cast, what really sets the movie apart is the script full of entertaining surprises and unexpected twists that harks back to the classic murder mystery movies that relied less on bloody violence. What makes it different is it is much more of a comedy that pokes fun at upper class families who are very much out-of-touch with the rest of the world and only think about maintaining their wealth and status. Overall, I found the film to be true cinematic gold that is so entertaining that one feels as if they are a part of the investigation and playing a game of Clue. Rian Johnson creates something that feels so new and extraordinary for such a old-fashioned style mystery; he was also blessed by a wonderful cast that really pulled the whole thing together. Three words: go see it!

Ad Astra

Co-written and directed by James Gray best known for 2017’s The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is a visually stunning sci-fi space adventure movie that is much more philosophical than your typical space film in that it explores the relationship between father and son as well as the existence of intelligent life beyond humanity on Earth. Set in the near distant future in which humans have colonized the Moon and Mars, the protagonist of the story Major Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt in one of his best performances, as a member of the U.S. Space Command is sent on a secret and personal mission to stop mysterious cosmic power surges crippling human infrastructure and threatening all of humanity. Roy is chosen for this mission because it is believed that his father H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is somehow involved despite disappearing sixteen years ago on a mission to Neptune. The emotionally stoic and dedicated Roy, who we discover through flashbacks has had a difficult personal life with his estranged wife and long-lost father, sets out on a interplanetary expedition to the SpaceCom base on Mars by way of the Moon where there is a war between countries and pirates over the control of minerals. He is accompanied by a longtime friend of his father who is played by Donald Sutherland to go to Mars in order to deliver a message to the Lima Project spacecraft, led by his father, that mysteriously disappeared years ago. Without spoiling too much of the plot, Roy goes on even further adventures across the solar system while he is internally grappling with what it means to be a human and trying to understand the intentions of his father who is praised as a hero of SpaceCom. Rather surprisingly, the movie is much more of a meditative experience that relies on magnificent cinematography exploring space and the dreamlike states of Roy as he spends days by himself in outer space. Since his father’s mission was to try and discover extraterrestrial life on solar systems far from our own, the film contemplates on the existence of life and what it means for humans to possibly be the only intelligent beings in the universe. Overall, I found it to be a very well-done space film that has brilliant elements of science fiction in its depiction of space travel in the future in addition to being a personal drama that takes an inward look into the human psyche and our relationships with others, particularly family.

The Souvenir

Written and directed by critically acclaimed British independent filmmaker Joanna Hogg known for making movies that partly reflect her own life, The Souvenir is a very artsy indie film about a budding film student who enters into a troubled relationship with a slightly older man, and it is remarkable for the terrific acting performances and the unique filmmaking techniques and writing. A slow burn of a movie, the almost philosophical movie revolves around the main character Julie, played by the talented young newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne who is the daughter of Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, who tries to distance herself from her upper middle-class family, including her mother played by Tilda Swinton, by joining a small film school and obsessing over making a movie with a very vague topic. Eventually, she begins a romantic relationship with the mysterious and quintessentially posh Anthony, played by the mesmerizing English actor Tom Burke, who is in a constantly dark place and is revealed to have some serious addiction problems. Similar to Julie, he very much goes against what is expected of him, and it is rather a surprise to learn that his family is from a working class and laid-back background. Often, the film feels like a personal project that is a very meta exploration of filmmaking, romance, class status, and toxic relationships. Yes, it can be a difficult-to-watch and confusing movie, but somehow it leaves a deep impression upon the viewer and reveals itself to be more like a piece of artwork that should be cherished for its complexity and beauty. Overall, I found it to be one of those rare films that I did not initially know whether I liked it or not; it was only after watching the movie did I realize how much it affected me. Only now do I appreciate it as one the best movies of the year as a result of how the filmmaker and actors were able to craft such a superb cinematic experience from an occasionally frustratingly opaque story.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Directed by Drew Goddard who is best known for writing 2008’s Cloverfield, 2013’s World War Z, and 2015’s The Martian in which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Bad Times at the El Royale is a dark and stylish mystery thriller that contains many elements of a popcorn flick but is elevated by strong acting performances. The unique storytelling and violence very much reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 movie The Hateful Eight: both take place in a isolated location involving a relatively small cast of mysterious figures together for largely unexplained reasons. The plot takes place over the course of one very eventful night in 1969 at the once celebrity hideout and very 1950s retro hotel called the El Royale straddling the border of California and Nevada near Lake Tahoe. At the beginning of the film, we meet the slick Southern gentleman vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan, played by Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm, who is on a regular stopover and greets fellow travelers Father Daniel Flynn, played by Oscar winner Jeff Bridges, and African-American lounge singer Darlene Sweet, played by Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo who uses her beautiful singing voice. Eventually, they are able to rouse the only employee at the empty hotel Miles Miller, played by fresh-faced young actor Lewis Pullman, after encountering yet another peculiar hotel guest named Emily Summerspring, played by the somber Dakota Johnson. All of the characters do not really know what is going on with each other and do not find out until the increasingly violent climax that takes place with the appearance of a handsome cult leader named Billy Lee, played by the shirtless Chris Hemsworth, and his ruthless crew. Without giving much of the plot away, suffice it to say that no one is who they seem to be and the hotel itself is full of mysterious and creepy surprises. The filmmaker makes the rather unusual narrative technique of using flashbacks that are clearly marked with title cards using each character’s room number and reveal the immediate events that led them to the El Royale. Most of the guests were involved in criminal or rather shady circumstances and figured that the remote hotel would be a good refuge from their troubles. Unlike most modern-day thrillers, the film does not heavily rely on action-packed sequences but rather focuses on character development that slowly evolves over the course of the almost two and a half hour duration. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining and not-too-serious thriller that is full of enough mystery, violence, and well-acted character backstories to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, even if the movie probably lasted too long.

A Simple Favor

clickDirected by Paul Feig who is best known for comedies, including 2011’s Bridesmaids and 2016’s Ghostbusters, A Simple Favor is a terrifically entertaining film that perfectly blends elements of mystery and comedy and uses its many plot twists to effectively create a fun whodunit. The plot follows a chipper widowed housewife named Stephanie Smothers, played by Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick, who makes a video blog giving tips to mothers and develops a chance friendship with the stylish and beautiful Emily Nelson, played by Blake Lively, who works as a PR director for a well-known fashion designer. They meet each other through their elementary-aged sons, and Stephanie is immediately enchanted by the glamorous yet mysterious Emily who invites her over for drinks during the day at her expensive house in a Connecticut town outside New York City. After Emily asks Stephanie the seemingly simple favor of picking up her son from school, Emily disappears without a trace. The middle part of the film involves Stephanie along with Emily’s husband and English professor Sean, played by Henry Golding best known for his role in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, trying to figure out what happened to Emily and if and by whom she was murdered. At the same time, Sean and Stephanie begin to have a romantic relationship as they work closely together. With Stephanie discussing Emily’s disappearance and appealing for help to the followers of her video blog, she begins to unravel the mysteries surrounding her friend and quickly learns that not everything is as it appears and that Emily has several dark secrets from her past that may reveal why she disappeared. All of Stephanie’s detective work leads to the final scenes of the movie that reveal plot twists on top of plot twists, quite effectively shocking and surprising the audience to a thrilling degree. Overall, I found it to be one of those rare movies that makes for a gripping and wonderfully twisty good time; the film very much reminds me of a less dark and more funny version of the brilliant 2014 thriller Gone Girl that was also full of mystery and a surprise ending.

Searching

searching_ver3_xlgDirected by first-time feature filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, Searching is an excellent thriller with terrific acting performances and a suspenseful script, but its major asset is its innovative use of shooting the entire film from the point-of-view of such modern technological devices as smart phones and computers. The plot follows a devoted father living in San Jose, California named David Kim, played by John Cho best known for his role in the stoner comedy trilogy Harold and Kumar first released in 2004, who tries to always be there for his daughter Margot after his wife Pamela dies from cancer several years before the film takes place. One day, his life falls apart after his beloved sixteen-year-old daughter goes missing after a study group, and he comes to the realization hours later that he must report his daughter as missing to the local police. The case is assigned to Detective Rosemary Vick, played by Emmy winner Debra Messing best known for her role in the popular NBC sitcom Will and Grace, who first treats the disappearance as a runaway but encourages David to look further into Margot’s personal life, including contacting her friends that may know more about what happened. Through his extensive investigations of his daughter’s online presence on Facebook and a video blogging website, he is able to piece together important clues that he gives to the police and leads them to several vital pieces of evidence about where she was last seen and possible motivations behind her vanishing. Towards the movie’s conclusion, David unearths a much more complex set of circumstances surrounding the mystery that leads the audience on a thrilling journey of unexpected plot twists. The filmmaker makes the film extremely relevant to today’s society by telling all of the story through the digital tools that many of us rely on every day and without following the format of a traditional movie with its use of film cameras. Almost all of the visuals are comprised of David’s computer screen as he makes Facetime video calls and goes through social media as it would appear in real life on screen. At first, I thought this rather unusual filmmaking technique would be too much of a gimmick, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it only heightens the suspense and creates a very provocative and gripping experience understandable to the current digital generation. Overall, I found it to be one of the best thrillers that I have seen in the past few years and is cinematically important for developing a brand-new filmmaking style that is truly eye-opening for audiences.

Super Troopers 2

super_troopers_two_ver2_xlgThe sequel to the 2001 cult comedy classic Super Troopers featuring the Broken Lizard comedic group, Super Troopers 2 is a ridiculously silly comedy that, like the original, is full of vulgar and very juvenile humor that tries to be nothing more than a more traditional slapstick comedy. The movie follows a group of former Vermont State Troopers who were fired after the shenanigans of the first film and are looking for a way to get back into law enforcement. The main characters are made up of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe: Jay Chandrasekhar playing Senior Trooper Arcot “Thorny” Ramathorn, Paul Soter playing Trooper Jeff Foster, Steve Lemme playing Trooper MacIntyre “Mac” Womack, Erik Stolhanske playing Trooper Robert “Rabbit” Roto, and Kevin Heffernan playing Trooper Rodney “Rod” Farva. The rather ludicrous plot involves the group of highly incompetent troopers led by Captain John O’Hagen, played by Golden Globe-nominated British actor Brian Cox, being recruited to help set up a new highway patrol station outside a small Canadian town transitioning into joining the United States after a border dispute between the two nations. They must take control from a group of three extremely stereotyped Canadian Mounties, including one played by Will Sasso of MADtv fame, who become engaged in prank war with the obnoxious American troopers. Many of the practical jokes that the characters play on one another are sometimes hilarious and almost always rely on gross-out and lowbrow humor that could be upsetting to some viewers. Over time, the ribald story becomes increasingly absurd with the appearance of the slick French-Canadian mayor Guy Le Franc, played by Rob Lowe, and a criminal organization smuggling drugs and a female version of Viagra outlawed in the United States. All of the Canadian characters are over-the-top composites of a stereotypical French-Canadian, complete with the different pronunciation of the word sorry and the notion that all Canadians are nice in addition to poking fun of the fact that some of them speak French and love hockey. Overall, I found it to be a mind-numbing comedy that furthers the stupidity of the original Super Troopers, which will definitely appease fans, that has its moments of uproarious hilarity fueled by some rather immature material.