Knives Out

Posted on November 25, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Murder mystery with graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 26, 2019
Date Released to DVD: February 24, 2020
Copyright 2019 Lionsgate

You know those murder mysteries where a big rich family all gathers in a big gothic house and someone gets killed and everyone has a motive and we get a bunch of red herrings (often the initial suspect is the second murder victim) and then the detective gathers everyone in the drawing room at the end to lay out all of the possible scenarios and then point dramatically at the surprise perpetrator? Those mysteries are sometimes called “cozies.” “Knives Out” is both a loving tribute and a cheeky meta-take on this genre from writer/director Rian Johnson and an all-star cast clearly having the time of their lives. It is deliciously nasty, seasoned with some political jibes, a ton of fun and anything but cozy.

It takes place in a magnificently gothic mansion correctly described by a character as something out of a Clue game. The owner is wealthy mystery author Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer), his name a likely nod to the classic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. “Knives Out” is literal — there is a huge “Game of Thrones”-style ceremonial seat decorated with daggers — and metaphoric, as a family of unpleasant heirs needle each other as they strive for the patriarch’s favor, meaning his money.

Just after the family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday party, Thromby is found dead, his throat cut, an apparent suicide. The suspects are: his daughter Linda (Jamie Leigh Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Thromby’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Thromby’s publishing company, Thromby’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of his late son and the proprietor of a pretentious “wellness” company, Thromby’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), the daughter of an undocumented immigrant. Other possible suspects include Harlan’s dotty mother Greatnana (K Callan), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their alt-right teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Joni’s college-student daughter Meg (Katharine Langford of “13 Reasons Why”), and Fran the housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Thromby’s son, daughter, and daughter-in-law think of themselves as successful entrepreneurs but in reality they are subsidized by Thromby, who has no illusions about their business acumen or their expressions of affection.

A cop (Lakeith Stanfield) accompanied by a state trooper (Noah Segan) starts asking questions. And then one of the suspects asks a question: Who is the man who has been silently sitting in the back, listening to everything that is going on? It is legendary “last of the gentleman sleuths” private Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose ridiculous name is matched by his honey-dripping Southern drawl, compared by one character to the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn (a caricatured rooster inspired by the caricatured Senator Claghorn on the old Fred Allen radio show). The first mystery is that he does not know who hired him to be there. He just received an envelope with cash inside.

We get a chance to see some illuminating flashbacks that let us in on some of what has happened before the detectives or the family know. And we get to know them better, especially Marta, repeatedly referred to patronizingly by the family as “one of the family” but no one can seem to remember which Spanish-speaking country she and her family come from. Marta is of special value to Blanc because she is a human lie detector, at least about her own truthfulness. If she does not tell the truth, she involuntarily projectile vomits. (Really.) She has a few secrets that she is desperate to conceal, especially after a motive is revealed. Characters make and break alliances as it seems no one can be trusted, and what is revealed just shows us how much more we don’t know.  The twists and turns will keep you guessing until the end and the unexpected barbs of satire make this as delicious as the fictional Thromby’s best-sellers.

Parents should know that this is a murder mystery with some grisly and graphic images, some strong language, family conflicts, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Which character did you suspect and why? Why did Thromby make that decision about his fortune?

If you like this, try: the original “Murder on the Orient Express,” “And Then There Were None,” and Rian Johnson’s other genre-bending films “Looper” and “Brick”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues movie review Movies -- format Mystery Thriller

You Again

Posted on February 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Cute people getting mired in a cute situation? Good. Cute situation getting mired in unimaginative slapstick? Not so much. This is yet another one of those movies about characters who have clearly never watched a romantic comedy. If they had, they would know that: trying to break up a loved one’s wedding two days before it is scheduled is not a great idea (“My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Made of Honor,” etc.). You only embarrass yourself by showing embarrassing footage of the bride at the rehearsal dinner (“27 Dresses”). Wandering off by yourself on a visit to the prospective in-laws often results in getting wet and ruining property (“Father of the Bride”). Taking a wedding-related movie down to a PG instead of a PG-13 is usually a sign that the studio does not have much confidence in it (“Bride Wars”) because the script is weak. The characters in this movie are the only ones on earth who haven’t been there, seen that.

It is a cute situation. Marni (Kristen with an “e” Bell) is a smooth, capable, professional woman who is proud of triumphing over her teenage years as an ugly duckling, constantly abused by the mean girls led by head cheerleader J.J. (Odette Yustman). Her comfort during those years was her golden boy brother Will. Now Will is getting married to none other than Joanna, formerly known as J.J. The calm, professional Marni instantly reverts to a cowering mess, and then things really get complicated. It turns out Joanna’s only family is her aunt Mona (Sigourney Weaver), who is none other than the former BFF-turned WFF of Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis), mother of the groom — and of course of Marni as well. Add to the mix a wedding planner (Kristin with an “i” Chenoweth), the bride’s ex-beau, a wise-cracking granny (Betty White, of course), a dance-off, a fluffy dog, and a dad who eats his meals blindfolded (okay, that one I didn’t see coming), and you have pieces that never quite work.  

Just to see the glass as half-full for a moment, I’ll point out that this movie does not have a big but highly touchy client who gets caught up in the chaos or a child to spout out-of-the-mouths-of-babes wisdom.  There are no funny clergy.  There are a couple of genuinely welcome surprise cameos.  Weaver and Curtis do their best to elevate the material and sometimes succeed.  

On the glass half-empty side, there is an icky dentures joke.  Serious injuries are dismissed as blithely as are serious infractions of trust and good judgment.  It is under-written, running out of steam — and ideas — long before it is over.  Ultimately, there’s too much com and not enough rom.  

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Comedy Romance

Freaky Friday

Posted on July 19, 2003 at 2:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some language
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: All major characters white, strong women
Date Released to Theaters: 2003
Date Released to DVD: 2004
Amazon.com ASIN: B00005JMCW

Jamie Leigh Curtis and Lindsay Lohan play a mother and teenager who switch bodies in this third version of the book by Mary Rodgers.

Curtis is Tess, a compassionate therapist and a loving, if harried mother of two children (there is a cute moment as she loads her pager, cell phone, and PDA into her purse). Her husband died three years ago, and she is about to be married to the devoted and understanding Ryan (the always-gorgeous Mark Harmon).

Lohan is her daughter Anna, and like most 15-year-olds, she thinks that she has both too much of her mother’s attention (when it comes to telling her what to do) and not enough (when it comes to knowing what is important to her, which she should just be able to intuit, since Anna does not really want to tell her anything).

When the two of them get into an argument at a Chinese restaurant, the owner’s mother gives them magic fortune cookies. The next morning, they wake up as each other. While they figure out how to return to their own bodies, each has to spend the day living the other’s life.

That means that Tess has to cope with high school, including a teacher with a grudge, a former friend-turned rival, a guy Anna has a crush on, and a big exam. Anna has some fun with her mother’s credit cards but then has to cope with needy patients and a television appearance promoting her mother’s new book. And both start to understand the pressure of the schedule conflict that is at the center of their conflict with each other — the rehearsal dinner before the wedding is at the same time as an important audition for Anna’s rock band.

Curtis and Lohan are so clearly enjoying themselves that they are fun to watch and the story moves along so briskly that its logical flaws barely get in the way.

Parents should know that characters use rude schoolyard words (“sucks,” “blows,” etc.). Anna wants to get the side of her ear pierced, and when she is in her mother’s body, she does. There is some kissing (the ew-factor of Ryan’s wanting to kiss Tess, not knowing that Anna is occupying her body, is handled with some delicacy). There are some tense family scenes and the movie deals with issues of parental control and teen rebellion.

Families who see this movie should talk about why it is hard for Tess and Anna to understand each other at the beginning of the movie. If the parents and children in your family switched places, what would be the biggest surprises? Families will also want to discuss some of the choices Tess and Anna make, especially the resolution of Anna’s problems with her English teacher and the honors exam. And it might be nice to compare this to the original movie, in which the mother is a full-time mom in a two-parent household, and the daughter’s challenges center around housework.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the original Freaky Friday or the 1995 made-for-television version starring Shelley Long. Mary Rodgers is also the author/composer of the delightful musical “Once Upon a Mattress.” It is not available on video, but you can get the marvelous original cast album with Carol Burnett on CD. And every family should see the movie musicals composed by Rodgers’ famous composer father, Richard, including Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel, and The Sound of Music).

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