Review “Knives Out” (2019)

“Knives Out” is a comedy/whodunnit directed by Rian Johnson. It boasts an impressive cast, led by Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, and also included Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Christopher Plummer. It is an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, based around the death of a family patriarch under suspicious circumstances.

What a cast! Daniel Craig leads the way as the private detective who has been called to what the police believe is a suicide, revealing that he does not know the identity of the person who hired him. Craig is great fun as a Poirot-like detective, managing to annoy all the members of this wealthy and privileged family with his probing questions. (One small hiccup with his performance – what IS that accent?) Otherwise he gives a great and eccentric performance following the clues to the finish. Ana De Amas plays Marta, a nurse hired to take care of the wealthy writer Harlan Thrombey. I do not remember having seen her before but she is fine in the role of the ‘ingenue’ of the piece. Thrombey himself is played by the great Christopher Plummer, and he was wonderful in this role, seemingly the most decent person surrounded by an extended family with their hands out. His actions, seen in flash-back, show a person capable of great integrity, and making the hard decisions. Plummer is very convincing in this role, as would be expected.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays Thrombey’s daughter, probably one of the few supporting cast who do not have any motive for murdering her father. She shines in a relatively small role, all sweetness and talking about how Marta is part of the family until circumstances change, whereupon so does her attitude, swiftly and nastily. Toni Collette is funny as pseudo-hippy Joni, who likes to live a peace and love lifestyle at Thrombey’s expense.

The men play in turn a philandering husband, a man whose only living seems to be managing his father’s business, and a younger waster who likes fast cars and drugs. These characters are all standard whodunnit tropes, but are all played with great conviction by Shannon, Johnson, and Evans. They are all in different ways very nice to Marta until it is no longer convenient to do so. Each of the actors show their nasty and threatening sides with great effect, in the case of Shannon, being a complete bastard in the politest way. Blackmail, anyone?

This film was directed by Rian Johnson. The only other film of his that I have seen is the 2012 production “Looper”. While I felt that movie was flawed, it’s direction was not the problem, and I can safely say here that Johnson directs “Knives Out” with a sense of fun as well as a good understanding of the genre he is portraying. As a comedic mystery it is excellent. Johnson’s homage to the ‘whodunnit’ genre (he also wrote the screenplay) indicates a superior understanding of what is required for this type of story.

Unfortunately I cannot say for sure whether it was hard to work out who the culprit was, because the internet spoiled this for me some time before I saw it. That being said, I was still left guessing on exactly how it was done, so it maintained that level of suspense for me. The twists and turns of the story move along at a good pace, and the solution and finale occur without any feeling that any loose ends have been left dangling. The comedy isn’t the belly laugh kind, more a subtle humour throughout that kept me smiling. Less subtle is the concept of a character so affected by lying that she becomes physically ill, which was revolting at times (though different, I’ll admit. Also I’m squeamish, so I could be biased.)

So, “Knives Out” is not meant to be taken seriously. This is not a thriller, not realistic. It’s a classic ‘whodunnit’ mystery, and as such, is a great deal of fun. I highly recommend it.

Review “Glass Onion” (2022)

“Glass Onion” is a sequel of sorts to “Knives Out”, starring Daniel Craig as detective Benoit Blanc. It is another Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, with a group of rich friends called together to a Greek Island by their billionaire ‘genius’ friend for a weekend of fun. Blanc himself gets an invitation, only for the millionaire to insist he didn’t invite him. Thus begins the mystery.

While “Knives Out” was an excellent whodunnit, “Glass Onion” is really more of a comedy/satire, poking fun at the eccentricities and excesses of the wealthy. It is quite obvious who is ultimately responsible, and as I NEVER work that out in films like these, that means if I got it, everyone’s going to get it.  (I was, in fact, sure I couldn’t possibly have it right because it was too obvious. However …)

The billionaire high-tech ’genius’, the has-been model, the social media influencer, the politician pretending to be green when she isn’t, the frustrated IT guy, the invitations inside not very sophisticated puzzle boxes … everything is poking fun at today’s society and its worship of the fake façade of online personalities. Nothing is real, but no one seems to care. This is not a mystery at all, but it is quite funny. That is something that will be quite disappointing for anyone looking for another complex murder mystery. It is ridiculously unrealistic, and obviously intended as such.

There are some good performances, particularly Craig, as well as Edward Norton’s pretentious alleged genius (really an idiot) who likes to use multi-syllable words and gets them all wrong, and Dave Bautista as a supposedly misogynistic social media influencer who clearly doesn’t believe a word he says but just says it to get followers, while being bullied by his mum. At least Craig’s accent seemed to have settled down to being just one thing (I suspect not particularly good), but at least not wandering all around the place like in the first movie.

The hint that this film is not really a mystery is in the title. What is a glass onion? It is something that only appears to have layers but is really transparent. The foolish millionaire who thinks he’s clever builds a great big transparent dome on his island and calls it the ‘glass onion’. You get the impression he thinks he’s being terribly deep, when he clearly does not have the intelligence for that kind of depth.

 The big finale, while having some comical moments, was not particularly clever. It consisted of one character starting to smash up the place, a bunch of other characters joining her, and then the character manages to trigger an explosion and sets fire to everything. In real terms she could be charged with arson, property damage etc. This is circumvented because the people who have previously perjured themselves for their own gain now realise that they no longer have anything to gain and switch their stories. It is another comment about the shallowness of rich people, but in real life it would not have saved the character from criminal charges.

Apparently, the director Rian Johnson said he wanted every ‘Knives Out’ movie to be completely different in story, tone and feel. I am not sure that a satire/comedy was the way to go, however. The detective needs to detect, and it felt like he didn’t have very much to do. In the climax where all the smashing and fire is occurring, he wanders off to smoke a joint with the red herring stoner guy. (This person kept wandering around and had nothing to do with the plot. The idea, one assumes, is that people are wondering about him instead of the main cast. As a red herring, he wasn’t really very successful. The most I wondered was if someone only thought to speak to him, he might have all the answers. Now that could have been funny.)

So, “Glass Onion” is not “Knives Out” quality, or anywhere near that. It is, at best, a mildly entertaining comedy that can only be enjoyed on that basis. If you’re looking for a murder mystery, this film is not it.

RIP Christopher Plummer (1929-2021)

Yesterday the great actor Christopher Plummer passed away, aged 91. His career spanned many decades, and his brilliance on screen has given joy to many. I won’t pretend I’ve seen anywhere near all of his work, but in tribute I will mention a few that I have particularly enjoyed.

Tonight I watched “Inside Man” (2006). It is a crime drama starring Denzel Washington, supported by a number of excellent supporting cast which included Christopher Plummer. His role as a banker with a sordid past he is very keen to keep secret, while not a large one, is a pivotal role to the plot, and his portrayal of this character, a man who has tried to make amends for something there is really no forgiving, is very convincing.

“Jesus of Nazareth” (1977) is a mini-series about the life of Christ. It has a star-studded cast, and Plummer’s role in this is Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist killed at the behest of his step-daughter Salome. He is so good in this role – he plays a character who is shallow, selfish and accustomed to near absolute power. His portrayal of the role indicates Herod’s hesitation to have John executed is due to a vague superstition about killing prophets, but who can’t control his appetites for the very young Salome. He is delightfully sordid in this. (I would recommend the show for many excellent portrayals by a fantastic cast.)

“Harrison Bergeron” (1995) is a science fiction film starring Sean Astin (of “Lord of the Rings” fame) as the title character who is a genius in a world where everyone is pressured to be average. Plummer’s role in this is of a representative of a shadowy government organisation, which picks out those whose intelligence can’t be repressed, recruiting them into government roles that assist to control the average. He is excellent here portraying a character who represents a regime and a creed that we would find repugnant, but he is so very matter-of-fact and so very plausible, you almost find yourself believing him, entirely due to Plummer’s superior acting ability.

“Knives Out” (2019) is an old-style whodunnit, again with an impressive cast, where Plummer portrays the nice patriarch of a family which leaves much to be desired. Again, I think a really good mark of an actor is when he or she makes you feel for the character. I felt quite sad for this character, what he has to go through and the pointlessness of his death, entirely due to his kindness. Plummer made that very real.

“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991) may to many be a lesser choice for Plummer, but as a long time Trekkie I have to include it. Plummer absolutely chewed the scenery and spat it out as the Klingon General Chang, plotting to kill the Klingon leader and renew war with the Federation. He was a hoot in this film, and if you haven’t seen it, you really should.

“Murder by Decree” (1979) is where Plummer had the opportunity to play Sherlock Holmes. The story is not from Doyle’s stories, but is instead a retelling of the Jack the Ripper murders if Sherlock Holmes had been investigating. He co-stars with the late and equally as great James Mason as Doctor Watson, and I would also highly recommend this, as I thought he was an excellent Holmes and it is an exciting and atmospheric movie. (As a personal aside, it was also my first ‘M’ rated film which my older brother took me to see, somewhat before I was actually old enough to be watching films with this rating. I loved it. My mother was appalled, which still makes me chuckle to this day.)

“Waterloo” (1970) is a big budget, cast of thousands, type of war movie, depicting the famous battle of Waterloo between Napoleon and Wellington. Plummer as the Duke of Wellington is very true to life (from what I know of the history, anyway) and the film is very gripping. This, of course, is way before CGI, hence the ‘cast of thousands’ phrase – all those soldiers on the battlefield are really there. If you want an epic war movie with a great big battle, have a look at this, as it is very good. (Rod Steiger as Napoleon is also fantastic in the role.)

“The Sound of Music” (1965) is of course what most people know when they think about Christopher Plummer. His uptight portrayal of Baron Von Trapp, who has apparently forgotten any sense of fun after his wife died, is really well done. The character comes across as someone who does not have any real idea what to do with all his children without his wife, hence his extreme retreat into what he knows ie the discipline of the navy. Plummer is really good in this role, and is convincing in his slow ‘thawing’ under the influence of Maria (played just as ably by Julie Andrews.)

With so many good movies, I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, Christopher Plummer was one of the great actors of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries, and he will be sorely missed.

Review “Hard to be a God” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were writing in Soviet era Russia, and the environment in which they worked gives their books an added nuance, knowing the societal constraints under which they were working, and what they managed to achieve. This is the second book I have read by these authors, and I have enjoyed it just as much as the first.

The plot concerns historians from a future Earth who are on another planet observing the inhabitants. The historians are disguised as inhabitants and taking part in the day to day life of the society, while recording everything they experience. Their role is to observe, but not to interfere. The main character, Anton, who goes by the name Don Rumata throughout the book, is becoming frustrated with the violence and suffering around him and longs to take some action. He also struggles with the inclination to become too acclimatised, to go native.

The society in which the observers find themselves is essentially medieval, with little to distinguish it from the European medieval period. The inhabitants believe in God, and there are monks and priests, though the nature of their religion is never explained. Don Rumata is supposedly a wealthy nobleman who is living in the city in which the story takes place and wasting his time on drinking, fighting and women, a rather stock standard characterisation worthy of any period novel. His native friends consist of nobility who do the same thing, but also the educated and intellectual members of society – doctors, poets, scientists.

Future Earth has attained a classless utopia. The historians of this society subscribe to the notion that a developing society will progress through various stages to inevitable communism. The attack on the intelligentsia does not fit the pattern, at least according to the protagonist. But he is not supposed to interfere with the society’s development. The non-interference ideas in this book anticipate later similar ideas in science fiction, of which Star Trek is perhaps the most obvious example. The historians insist that even apparently benevolent intervention can end up causing damage, as it is impossible to predict how much change such interference would cause over time. Anton’s colleagues insist that Reba, presiding over the wiping out of the society’s educated class, still fits the pattern. Anton believes he does not, and he is afraid the society will be destroyed while they do nothing.

This was written at a time when Soviet suppression of dissent, such as the suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, was a policy of the government. The Brezhnev Doctrine was then introduced, stating that threat to communism in any state justified invasion from other communist states as it was a threat to them all. Also there was suppression inside the Soviet Union of the intelligentsia, including writers, artists, thinkers of any kind. ‘Socialist Realism’ was the approved form of art, and was meant to show the glory and heroism of communist ideals. It was in this environment that ‘Hard to be a god’ was published, and the criticism of these policies is obvious. I actually find it extraordinarily clever – it courts the establishment by its view of a future socialist dream, while using the mechanism of the alien world to critique the actuality of Soviet reality in the arrests and murders of that society’s writers and thinkers, or indeed of any totalitarian idealogy,

The main character is endlessly frozen between his impulse to do good, his awareness of the theory that says this will cause harm,. and his fear that he is ‘going native’. The disgust and anger he feels towards the people and situations he sees fuels a rage that he can foresee could make him act in the same manner as those he despises. He knows he is becoming acclimatised in the sense that he wants to become like them, to punish the murderers by murdering them in turn. Anton/Rumata is terrified by these inclinations and struggles against them, ultimately losing when a traumatic event tips him over the edge. It’s a very psychologically true aspect of the story – after all, we often think about murderers and rapists as people who should be killed, who don’t deserve to live. The impulse to repay violence with violence is a common human trait. Anton’s colleagues avoid this by maintaining distance, whereas Anton falls prey to this because he has become involved, become fond of at least some people and aspects of the society.

Because I sincerely hate and despise them. Not pity them, no—only hate and despise. I can justify the stupidity and brutality of the kid I just passed all I want— the social conditions, the appalling upbringing, anything at all—but I now clearly see that he’s my enemy, the enemy of all that I love, the enemy of my friends, the enemy of what I hold most sacred. And I don’t hate him theoretically, as a “typical specimen,” but him as himself, him as an individual. I hate his slobbering mug, the stink of his unwashed body, his blind faith, his animosity toward everything other than sex and booze. There he goes, stomping around, the oaf, who half a year ago was still being thrashed by a fat-bellied father in a vain attempt to prepare him for selling stale flour and old jam; he’s wheezing, the dumb lug, struggling to recall the paragraphs of badly crammed regulations, and he just can’t figure out whether he’s supposed to cut the noble don down with his ax, shout “Stop!” or just forget about it. No one will find out anyway, so he’ll forget about it, go back to his recess, stuff some chewing bark into his mouth and chew it loudly, drooling and smacking his lips. And there’s nothing that he wants to know, and there’s nothing he wants to think about.

His sense of justice has prompted him to save lives where he can, spiriting people out of the danger zone and sending them to a less reactionary neighbouring country. This has exposed him as being someone dangerous to Don Reba, the villain of the piece and the instigator and mastermind of the violent repression. Don Reba knows that Rumata is not who he says he is, and has a fanatic’s belief that Rumata has magical power that he can use. He is also scared of that power, a fear which Rumata uses in order to walk out of Reba’s headquarters. The implicit question here, is whether Rumata’s so-called power may have triggered or at least exacerbated Reba’s murderous bloodbath? Has Rumata’s very presence caused the interference the scientists have tried to avoid?

The theory under which the scientists work insist that a society goes through a number of stages before developing inevitably into a communist paradise. Rumata insists that Reba is an anomaly, outside the theory and therefore a potential destroyer of the society’s development. (This reminds me of Isaac Asimon’s ‘Foundation and Empire’, where a mutant called the Mule derailed the predicted course of events by being an unpredictable anomaly.) After Reba stages a bloody coup reminiscent of Hitler’s ‘night of the long knives’ the historians concede that they might have been mistaken, but by then it is too late.

And no matter how much the gray people in power despise knowledge, they can’t do anything about historical objectivity; they can slow it down, but they can’t stop it. Despising and fearing knowledge, they will nonetheless inevitably decide to promote it in order to survive. Sooner or later they will be forced to allow universities and scientific societies, to create research centers, observatories, and laboratories, and thus to create a cadre of people of thought and knowledge: people who are completely beyond their control, people with a completely different psychology and with completely different needs. And these people cannot exist and certainly cannot function in the former atmosphere of low self-interest, banal preoccupations, dull self-satisfaction, and purely carnal needs. They need a new atmosphere— an atmosphere of comprehensive and inclusive learning, permeated with creative tension; they need writers, artists, composers— and the gray people in power are forced to make this concession too. The obstinate ones will be swept aside by their more cunning opponents in the struggle for power, but those who make this concession are, inevitably and paradoxically, digging their own graves against their will. For fatal to the ignorant egoists and fanatics is the growth of a full range of culture in the people— from research in the natural sciences to the ability to marvel at great music. And then comes the associated process of the broad intellectualization of society: an era in which grayness fights its last battles with a brutality that takes humanity back to the middle ages, loses these battles, and forever disappears as an actual force.

So why is it hard to be a god? The historians have god-like powers compared to the natives, and they don’t use those powers to affect the local population. Towards the end of the book Rumata has a conversation with the native Budach about what a person might ask God to do to make the world better. Rumata has an answer for each of his suggestions as to how they won’t work. Finally, Budach says:

Then, Lord, wipe us off the face of the planet and create us anew in a more perfect form … Or, even better, leave us be and let us go our own way.”

My heart is full of pity,” Rumata said slowly. “I cannot do that.”

This is Rumata’s dilemma. He can’t act, and he can’t fail to act. So he’s stuck in between, unable to move forward or go back. The pressure on him is already almost unbearable, because he cares. It takes only one more death to tip him over.

I love a book with layers, and “Hard to be a god” has many layers to investigate. It’s an excellent novel, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligent and thought-provoking literature.