“Knives Out” Film Review

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Knives Out. If you have not seen this movie but hope to do so, do not continue reading. 

I’ve been on a murder-mystery kick for the last several days, so I was interested in giving Knives Out a try. The trailer gave off some serious Agatha Christie/Clue vibes and so I was instantly hooked by the premise.

In spite of my excitement, I was preparing myself for disappointment. There have been many trailers over the years that have gotten me pumped up over the years, only to disappoint me when I actually went out of my way to see them in theaters.

I’m happy to say this was not the case in this instance.

Not only did the film deliver, it exceeded my expectations.

While the premise intrigued me, I went in expecting the characters to be one-dimensional. Even murder-mystery staples like Christie can be guilty of creating characters severely underdeveloped for the sake of plot progression. However, I was quickly proven incorrect on that score as well.

While not likable, the family members are all quite believable each in their own respect. They are all greedy and self-absorbed but not to a cartoonish degree. Even when their avarice is on display it’s usually done in a subtle way.

I was especially impressed by Marta Cabrera, the heroine of the movie. Considering she is supposed to be the moral center of this film and surrounded by such awful people, they could have easily made her saccharine or Disney Princess-y, but they managed to make her an exceedingly good person in a realistic manner.

Even Detective Blanc, for all his hamminess, was enjoyable and a nice change from Daniel Craig’s normal catalogue of characters. It’s great to see a movie where Craig has more than one facial expression. Turns out he has some comedy chops as well as he constantly had the theatre laughing with his languid analogies such as the donut hole. 

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His Southern-Georgian accent was…pretty terrible but it grew on me the longer I heard it. And the way he chewed the scenery like a cow chews cud brought me endless joy.

While we’re on the subject of characters, I have to say, the scene where the family members are fighting over politics is probably the most realistic depiction of a political argument in a familial setting that I’ve ever seen put to film. I was also struck by how balanced it was, portraying all members as being lunatics rather than one side being completely right or wrong. It added a layer to realism to the movie that I wasn’t expecting. While the events transpiring around them were unreal, the characters themselves were very authentic and thus made it easier for the audience to suspend disbelief.

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As for the plot, I admire it on many different levels. On one level, it clearly wanted to exude Agatha Christie vibes (as previously stated) but it quickly became its own entity. In fact, I suspect the old English murder-mystery tone was created as a way of subverting our expectations of what was to come. It certainly did mine. While I thought the idea of the grandfather’s “murder” being the result of a tragic accident rather than malicious intent was genius, the movie hadn’t even reached the halfway mark yet. If the murder had been solved, then what the hell was the rest of the movie going to be about? As it happens, the movie was in much more capable hands than I suspected.

Through the course of the story, we learn that what happened that night wasn’t nearly so cut and dry as we thought. While we knew what occurred superficially, we didn’t realize we should be looking for a why. We didn’t think to ask why Marta had mixed up the drugs. We just assumed it was an honest mistake. Happens all the time. As a result, the movie was able to play with our lack of curiosity and create an even bigger, more jaw-dropping story.

The writing for this movie is some of the smartest I’ve seen. I think Joker beats it out as my favorite movie of the year, but the amount of care that was put into this script really shows. It wasn’t just a murder-mystery epic, it was also heartbreaking at times, and funny.

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You would think, granted to severity of the character’s circumstances, the humor would be jarring. On the contrary, it’s delicately woven in and genuinely had me and many others laughing out loud.

Then there is the ending.

The ending is pure genius because it encapsulates a forgotten principle in film-making: Show don’t tell.

After the climax, Marta is left debating whether or not she should help the Thrombey family financially. Since they were each ceremoniously cut from the grandfather’s will and she was given everything, she wonders if it is morally just to honor Harlan’s wishes, or if it would be better to have pity on them.

Her decision is never spoken out loud, but the movie clearly gives us an answer to her moral dilemma. While out on the lawn, in the wake of Ransom’s arrest, the family gaze up at Marta as she stands above them (metaphorically and literally) on the balcony, nursing one of Harlan’s mugs. She wordlessly takes a sip, her hand covering the bottom of the mug’s topography. However, we can clearly see two words engraved on the front above her hand: My house.

Brilliant.

If I had to nitpick, I might argue the movie is a bit too long, but honestly I don’t care. This was an amazingly written, fun, and exciting romp to the movies and I loved it.

10/10

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Spoiler- Free Thoughts on “11/22/63” by Stephen King

Summary: Life can turn on a dime—or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in a Maine town. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away…but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke…Finding himself in warmhearted Jodie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten…and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.

The best way I can describe this book is it’s Stephen King for people who don’t like Stephen King. Many of his tropes are in evidence (Maine, alcoholism, dumb rednecks, religious fanaticism, etc), but they are mercifully kept in the background, making their inclusion more tolerable.

I enjoyed the idea of time being like a sentient being that sets upon Jake like white blood cells on a foreign body, throwing unexpected obstacles in his way to change the future. It’s an interesting concept that I don’t think has been done in many novels. We’ve seen how changes to the past have detrimental consequences for the future, but we haven’t seen the past itself as a living organism. It raises a lot of interesting questions about destiny. If the past resists change, does that mean time itself has already been written and we’re doomed to follow one track forever?

I was genuinely on the edge of my seat wondering how King would wrap this whole thing up and, without giving anything away, I was not disappointed.

It is a long book (like many of King’s novels), but it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a big novel. The pacing is always snappy and even the more subdued scenes have a steady forward-moving momentum that makes it seem like everything is in aid of the overall plot and not just an excuse for the writer to lolly-gag.

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However….that’s not to say I had no problems with it.

In fact, there’s one issue that dogged me for a greater part of the novel: Jake’s motivation to stop the Kennedy assassination.

In all honesty, when you look at all the variables….this is actually a pretty stupid idea.

Jake’s hypothesis is that if Kennedy had lived he would have put a stop to the Vietnam War which would invariably save the lives of thousands of people.

Without getting too political,  JFK was objectively a competent leader who did more good in his tenure than harm. However, the question of whether or not Kennedy would have chosen to continue the war had he lived is an on-going debate even today. In fact, many Vietnam historians both left and right of center, believe he would have continued to keep troops overseas regardless of any personal hang-ups he had with the conflict.

Simply put, Jake is banking on a lot–and I mean a lot–when it comes to the potential outcome of saving Kennedy.

Imagine sacrificing six years of you life, virtually everyone you’ve ever met, all modern amenities including medicine, your freedom, and potentially your life, all based on a theory. 

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I might be more willing to buy his dedication if he was a public defender or former military with a checkered past he needed to atone for, but he was an English teacher with a squeaky clean record. It wasn’t as if he had become a jaded post-modern lump that wanted more fulfillment in life either. From what I could tell, he was perfectly content living as a high school teacher in a small town. He really didn’t have a reason to dump his life so quickly, family or no.

I would be lying if I said this ruined my reading experience, but these were thoughts that followed me as I read deeper and deeper and the stakes grew ever higher.

Even as someone who normally does not gravitate to King’s writing, I found this to be a very engaging and entertaining read. I recommend anyone, regardless of literary tastes, give it a try.

It’s suspenseful, dramatic, engrossing and overall good fun.

8/10

Spoiler-Free Thoughts on The Books I’ve Read In 2019 (So Far)

I made a promise to myself that I would try to read more books in 2019  since I didn’t feel as though I read that much in 2018.  Fortunately (and surprisingly) I’ve managed to keep this vow even with my turbulent schedule and lack of desire to be productive.

So here are some thoughts on the books I have managed to read thus far.

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The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz 

Summary: After working with bestselling crime writer Alan Conway for years, editor Susan Ryeland is intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries in sleepy English villages. His traditional formula has proved hugely successful, so successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job. Conway’s latest tale involves a murder at Pye Hall, with dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects. But the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

As someone who grew up on PBS British detective shows, I absolutely loved this book.

I was reluctant to read it initially because I knew it was a story within a story, nevertheless, I found both tales –the one written by Conway and by Susan–both equally captivating and I was just as eager as Susan to discover the conclusion to Pünd’s story.

It’s easy to see Horowitz has worked on many on-screen productions as the pacing is quick and engaging, leaving little room for superfluous details or fluff, but still dedicates enough time to developing characters and setting the scene.

Apart from the plot itself, what makes the story interesting is how it inwardly reflects on the genre of mystery as a whole. It asks why people are so drawn to the subject and provides interesting theories all without being overly sentimental.

It’s a quintessential love letter to Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and many other mystery writers, all while keeping its own unique identity.

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The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

Summary: Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare. What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems. 

I’m a fan of Hitchcock films and a self-proclaimed junkie for unreliable narrators so this book was a match made in Heaven for me. Apart from being a page-turning mystery, it’s also a well-crafted character piece.

Anna is more than just an unreliable narrator. She’s a completely sympathetic person that is as much the victim of her circumstances as she is the cause of them. She’s a three-dimensional character forced into a situation beyond her control and the unravelling of her past is as tragic as it is interesting.

When I learned the author of this book was a man, I was genuinely surprised. I know from first-hand experience how difficult it can be writing for the opposite gender, but Finn does so with such skill and sincerity you completely forget the author is not a woman.

I wasn’t 100% thrilled with how it ends as it comes off as a bit too cartoonish, in my opinion. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of Hitchcock-like stories you will enjoy this one.

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The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah 

Summary: For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival. Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam War a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: He will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Kristin did an excellent job of showing the brutal beauty of the Alaskan landscape as well as the complexity of human nature. At times I thought it was a little too bleak, rife with almost Jodi-Picolt-levels of drama where one implausibly awful thing is followed by another implausibly awful thing, but the constant conflict was genuinely gripping and kept me going in spite of it all.

This is just a personal hang-up that I have with the novel so take it for what you will, but I found Leni’s love interest to be a bit unconvincing as a character. It was difficult to believe that a boy that grew up in such a harsh, unforgiving climate and had so much of his life devoted to survival would give a crap about poetry. Nor does it seem that plausible that he would have that much devotion to a girl he met when he was a little kid. That could be my own cynicism talking, but I did grow up in a very small town and absolutely none of the males I encountered were anything like this.

I will say this in the novel’s favor, I genuinely didn’t know where it was going and yet I  trusted the writer to lead it to it’s rightful destination. Some suspicions I had early on were confirmed, but Hannah threw many unexpected curveballs that made it damn near impossible for me to put the book down.

I won’t say what happens as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that wants to read it, but it’s worth all the emotional torture the reader has to go through to reach the end. 

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The City of Z by David Grann

Summary: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for those who seek to solve it. The Lost City of Z is a blockbuster adventure narrative about what lies beneath the impenetrable jungle canopy of the Amazon.

After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve “the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century”: What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett & his quest for the Lost City of Z?

I’m typically not a fan of nonfiction, but I made an exception for this book since the subject was intriguing to me.

I picked up this book to learn about the City of Z, but I stayed for the man that tried to uncover its mysteries. Fawcett was a character straight out of myth, both seemingly impervious to hostile-climes and disease as well as endlessly tenacious in his willingness to see a journey through to its end. He was instrumental in increasing our understanding of the Amazon, sacrificing almost everything he had to find Z, even when many scoffed at the notion that such a place ever existed.

I admire Grann’s ability to weave such an interesting narrative all while unloading boatloads of information on the reader without making them feel as though they are trapped at a boring lecture.

The intimate details, journal entries, the attention to socio-political climates at this time really made this story come to life.

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His Bloody Project  by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Summary: A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?

This book is a novel disguised as a true-crime book, written by a supposed descendent of the murderer in question. It’s part “memoir” told from Roderick Macrae and part compilation of “historical documents” that describe the events leading up to and after the murders.

Roderick is an interesting character in that he’s surprisingly intelligent in spite of his limited education as well as a seemingly perplexing narrator. The story begins with him explaining his backstory, life and misfortunes and then slowly delves into the crime itself. From the tale Roderick weaves it would seem he was merely a victim of his circumstance, however, the reader will notice several inconsistencies with Roderick’s version of events and the accounts that are later brought to light at his trial. This forces readers to re-evaluate all they thought they knew.

Is Roderick a good person that was driven to murder by his hopeless situation as a tenant farmer? Is he criminally insane? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

There was a lot of research that went into the making of this book. The rural landscape and lifestyle of the average 19th century Scottish Highlander was very vividly depicted. I also appreciated the incorporation of the prevalent sociological theories that existed around that time period. Criminology was in its infancy in the 1800s and it was interesting to see how the school of thought in regards to criminals has evolved over the years.

If you’re a historical fiction lover like I am, you’ll really like this.

Thoughts on “You” a Netflix Series

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SHOW “YOU”. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE SHOW AND PLAN TO DO SO, STOP READING NOW.

P.S.  I wasn’t aware it was a novel until after I started watching the series, thus, all of my opinions are based solely on the Netflix show.

Some people find stories told through a mentally-disturbed character’s perspective distasteful.

I’ve never been one of them.

I adore stories with morally dubious protagonists and their unnerving compulsions and I knew from the first moment I heard Joe talking to Beck via voiceover that I was going to get my fix.

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I’m not new to stories like this so I was expecting to see all the usual tropes: the criminal mastermind, the hard-boiled detective who is on his tail unbeknownst to him, the grisly murders, etc. However,  I was surprised with the creative choices the story took, especially in regards to Joe’s character.

Unlike in many shows of this caliber, Joe is not an evil genius a la Walter White or Hannibal Lector. He has an above average IQ, sure, but his M.O. is more impulse-based than the characters I just mentioned.

When he kidnaps Benji and places him in the glass prison downstairs, he has no idea what to do with him and doesn’t formulate a solution until later.

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Similarly when he “plans” to kill Peach, he simply runs up on her and beams her in the back of the head with a rock.

In Central Park.

In broad daylight.

And then doesn’t take two seconds to make sure she’s actually dead.

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I thought Joe’s lack of preparedness made his character more life-like and kept the story grounded in reality.

On the other hand–and this is just my personal opinion–I think they made Joe’s character a bit too affable. I know some psychopaths are able to blend in with people with reflexive ease, but I thought he was too in-the-know when it came to normal human behavior. There was the occasional slip up, like when he saw an elderly couple and he said “that will be us” to Beck even though this was only their first or second date. But, overall, he functioned just fine and was even willing to conform to most post-modern societal norms like oversensitivity to certain off-color comments.

I’m torn if I should praise or condemn the show for giving us only slivers of  Joe’s backstory. On the one hand, not giving away too much kept the plot from being bogged down by too much exposition. On the other hand, what we got was a bit lackluster in my opinion.

What Mr. Mooney did to Joe was disturbing in principle, but we didn’t get a real taste of what Joe experienced psychologically while under Mooney’s care. We basically saw him being locked in the cage, and then in the next scene he was fine with no visible signs he had undergone some disturbing metamorphosis. No vomit-stained shirt, no disheveled hair, no crazed look in his eyes. On all fronts, he seemed to be fine. Only now he was conforming to Mooney’s warped sense of love and protection.

Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t just happen. It is the mind’s last resort to keep from giving into utter despair and research has shown that it only works on about 8% of victims. I think the story could have benefited from delving just a few minutes more into this psyche in those moments.

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There aren’t that many “You” gifs on Google so here is a cat representing Joe being trapped in the Mooney’s bookstore basement.

As for the love interest….

I frequently vacillated between liking Beck and thinking she was terrible (even compared to Joe who is a literal serial-killer). This continued on throughout the series where she went from being a flake, to having an affair, to breaking up with him for no reason (at least none she knew of, yet). I still don’t know whether or not I like her as a person. Nevertheless, I still think she was a well-written character in spite of my own personal hang-ups with her many faults.

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All things considered, Beck is a very accurate representation of a damaged person and I have to applaud the writers for that.

People like her do sabotage their own happiness because they are afraid they are undeserving of it. They will cheat, they will lie, they will project their insecurities onto other people and go out of their way  for friends that cause them psychological harm. We see this in her blind loyalty to Peach. I think that’s what can make her character so irritating at times. I’ve known people that are exactly like her and so I want to reach through the screen and slap her.

In a truly warped way, Joe made her the best she could be. By forcibly removing all the negative people from her life, he made it so she could focus on achieving her dreams. I would like to say she would be strong enough to eventually cut all these people out of her life on her own accord, but considering how demurring she was in the face of Peach’s constant interference, it’s not clear if she ever would have become a published author.

I know it’s messed up, but I admit that I shipped Joe and Beck together.

Even when she found out the truth about him, I was still hoping for a Stockholm-isque romance between them.

They should have scrapped the ending where she died and made the whole second season about them covering up Joe’s past crimes and evading the intrusive hand of the law. It could have been like Bonnie and Clyde but with more psychological damage.

I know! I know!

It’s problematic and I bet there would be a butt-load of controversy over how this was a harmful representation of a relationship—

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–but…dammit if they aren’t cute together.

It doesn’t help that literally every other male character in this show acts reprehensibly towards her to the point where the freaking serial killer looks like the healthiest option.

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As for the ending, I thought it was a bit disappointing.

Beck was literally at the top of the stairs, screaming for her life and then…boom! He grabs her and we cut to the aftermath where her book is being sold at record rates at the bookstore following her death.

I wasn’t crossing my fingers for a torture-porn session, but come on people. If your show has an MA-rating you might as well go for broke.

Besides, Beck was a main character. To kill her off-screen feels kind of cheap. I forgave them when they didn’t show Peach’s last stand to its grisly conclusion because she was a side-character, albeit an important one.

But this was Beck!

They killed the douche-bag cop on screen, why not Beck who is way more important?

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Okay, I wasn’t that distraught about it but…still.

Also, I’m not sure what to make about Candace being alive. I’m not sure if season two is headed in a positive direction. Based on how good this season was, I’ll at least give it a shot.

8/10