Tag: rian johnson

Knives Out


Knives Out (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The funny thing is, for a whodunit picture, it is not difficult to figure out the person, or persons, responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery novelist who has so much wealth, his grown children cannot help but to act like vultures even before his barely cold body is in the ground. Needless to say, it is also not at all a challenge to determine the motive for the murder. The joy, however, is embedded in the question of how. The answers are so specific and executed with so much vitality that when they are revealed eventually, they kind of just take your breath away. This is the writer-director Rian Johnson that I know, the mind behind inspired works like “Brick” and “Looper.” He is in top form here.

Funnier still is that the more I tried to answer the questions using only my brain, substantive solutions prove to become more elusive. Therein lies its source of enjoyment: Because Johnson is aware that we will approach the puzzle in this manner, he must create enough kinks in the screenplay that upends our expectations. It seems we are dealing with an ordinary mystery—and in plenty of ways it is—but it is far more self-aware than it purports itself to be. Even those most experienced with mystery stories are likely to have a ball with this.

We are introduced to a slew of colorful characters with abrasive personalities—every one of them suspicious. There is, of course, Harlan’s children: eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who found success in the real estate business and youngest Walt (Michael Shannon) who functions as the acting CEO of his father’s publishing company. The middle child, Neil, passed away years prior, but his spouse Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru, remains highly connected to the family. The expertly paced initial interview shows us three facts: 1) their relationship with the deceased is strained but complex, 2) they are capable of lying—even though they may not be very good at it, and 3) they are hardwired to protect the family legacy. Putting on a successful front is an absolute must; when it is threatened, they react as though it is a national calamity. Clearly, these people, including their offsprings (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell), are born and bred in privilege. It is the only lifestyle they know.

The investigation is led by Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and he is supported by private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). I wished the former had more of the central role in the case despite the latter’s sterling reputation as an investigator. I did not get a definitive impression of how Elliot thinks, specifically his style of deduction. It would have been preferred to show the duo working together, even clashing on occasion. Blanc, on the other hand, is full of personality. He is attentive, quick-witted, and amusing in the way he underplays his dry sense of humor. When he speaks, it is often to make a point. And when he is silent, well, he remains a presence. He is the type of person with whom you wish to know his take. Craig plays Blanc with gusto, charm, and urgency. It is one of his more memorable roles in a while.

Another crucial piece of the mystery involves Harlan’s nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas). From a Latin immigrant family, she is our conduit to the Thrombey’s posh bubble. The script is peppered with timely social commentary in regards to how white folks of privilege tend to look down on ethnic minority groups by way of kind words and actions. “You’re almost like a part of this family.” We are meant to cringe and feel uncomfortable. And laugh, too, at its honesty.

The intelligently written and thoroughly entertaining “Knives Out” never betrays the audience despite numerous high-stake left turns. It invites the viewers to look closely, to recognize possible red herrings, to understand how characters think and predict how they might respond. We hang onto every line because a clue may be lodged in there.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi


Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Thrilling, visually resplendent, and high on entertainment value, the eighth “Star Wars” picture is, upon closer inspection, an attempt to push the series toward fresh territory while honoring the spirit of the beloved original trilogy. It stands strong amongst the cream of the crop with enough genuinely surprising twists and interesting character direction to pique the interest of observant and emotionally invested viewers. In the hands of writer-director Rian Johnson, “The Last Jedi” opens up a promising uncharted universe, an outstanding achievement because the series is already is so rich in lore, curiosities, and possibilities.

Its striking visual style is made apparent right from the opening sequence. Naturally, it involves blowing things up and yet we are invited to notice minute details. What I loved about 1977’s “A New Hope” is the look of a lived-in future. No matter where we end up, whether it be on a scorching desert, an asteroid field, man-made floating cities hiding behind clouds or outer space, surfaces almost always have dust, moss, or some kind of outer covering. Items appear old or second-hand but the attitude behind the events surrounding these inanimate objects, in addition to the people who interact with or wield them, their spirit, their energy, is young, vibrant, waiting to reach a crescendo with the slightest touch.

Although the action is most impressive, particularly dogfights that require eye-popping and brow-raising acrobatics, it can be argued that the film’s strongest moments involve longing silences, young and worn characters looking at each other knowingly, engaging in tense exchanges that could alter the tide of war between The First Order and the Resistance, the latter desperate and dwindling in number.

Out of three parallel storylines, most intriguing is Rey (Daisy Ridley), tyro and earnest but strong with the Force, attempting to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his self-imposed isolation and join the fight for the galaxy. The overall tone, compared to the rest of the picture, is spiritual, questioning. Shades of blue, gray, and green dominate the screen. We hear nature rather than whirring of machines and explosions. The pacing is unhurried, unconcerned with creating a typical arc to garner tension, prone to rumination.

Familiar characters are given more personality this time around. For example, in the predecessor, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is introduced as an ace fighter pilot, clearly a key player in the Resistance. However, we simply accept the character as he is introduced. Here, however, it is shown why Dameron is a leader, his competencies as well as his shortcomings. We are even introduced to his type of humor. Jokes and situational comedies almost always fit the occasion or characters involved. When the writing is specific and takes risks, the allure of the “Star Wars” universe is all the more amplified.

A filmmaker’s goal, or what should be his or her goal, is to put one’s unique stamp on a project, whether it be for mainstream consumption or a niche audience. Here, I got a strong impression that the “Star Wars” installment that Johnson respects most, his beacon, is “A New Hope.” It is in how he picks up themes brought up in that film and makes them his own rather seamlessly without relying on overt images or fan service. Most importantly, the writer-director is willing to take the next step and to give the franchise a chance to evolve. However, putting one’s own stamp on a popular franchise comes with a cost: it is certain to antagonize audiences who are not yet ready to look to the future.

Looper


Looper (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not mean for him, his future self, to get away, a momentary hesitation that allows Old Joe (Bruce Willis), sent from year 2074 by a criminal organization using a time machine to be executed and disposed of in 2044, to escape which prompts the boss (Jeff Daniels) to initiate a hunt to kill the two. It is the only way to minimize further changes in the future. The problem is Joe wishes to live a full life even though he already knows that being a looper, an assassin of the present assigned to murder people sent from the future, comes with an expiration date of age thirty. Meanwhile, Old Joe hopes to alter the past by killing a person called The Rainmaker in order to undo the death of his wife.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, “Looper” explores a handful of interesting and intertwining ideas about the people affected by time travel, outlawed by the government upon its discovery, and avoids many details and technicalities of the concept itself. There is a difference and it is an important one because by focusing on the former, the writer-director constructs a story that we can, first and foremost, invest in or care about and, secondly, appreciate a fictionalized world of flying motorcycles and people with the ability to move objects using their minds due to a genetic mutation that affects ten percent of the population.

I enjoyed that the interactions between current and future Joe are kept to a minimum. Their one conversation set in a diner is imbued with an electric dialogue that is ironic and funny but serious and intelligent, too. This scene is not only a stand out because of the script. It is the point when we can observe how alike–or different–the actors are with respect to them playing, essentially, the same person. One is able to match the other not simply in terms of quirks but, for example, how one delivers a calculating gaze to a threatening or curious figure. The way in which they place stresses on particular words are also fun to pick up on.

Though it was easy for me to divorce between actor and makeup, I would have preferred that Gordon-Levitt was not given prosthetics so that he would look more like Willis. Since the picture functions on a relatively high level of imagination, it would have made sense for the filmmakers to assume that we had the initiative and the capacity to imagine the two actors, given that their performances complement each other well, playing a variation of one character.

What works less effectively is that the script does not give enough details about the organization led by Abe (Daniels). Is its goal more related to business like running a drug cartel and strip joints or is its objective more concerned about the bodies that come from the future? Furthermore, while Abe is nicely played by Daniels because he tends to choose quiet over hyperbolic menace, we do not see the character do much other than give orders. For someone who is supposed to be the leader, he does an awful lot of waiting for everyone else to do their jobs right. Ultimately, watching him does not feel like we are being engaged with a character who has much purpose underneath the archetype of a mob boss of some sort.

“Looper” may be and is faulted for its irregular pacing particularly when the story takes a detour on a farm. I respected this change of pace because it ties in to the idea that the picture is not just a sci-fi action film padded by chases and bullets flying. It takes a risk worth noting. It gives itself a chance to turn its attention toward one or two moral questions by setting aside almost half of its entertainment value. This approach is not common but it sure is admirable.