Knives Out

* * * * 1/2

Rian Johnson is forging a cool career as a genre auteurist whose films are in different genres. Thus Brick was his noir, The Brothers Bloom his romantic con-artist romp, Looper his time travel brain-buster, The Last Jedi his space opera, and now Knives Out his whodunnit. In each case – even on his Star Wars gig – he simultaneously celebrates and subverts the genre, adhering to its conventions while spinning the material in a fresh way. He’s only 46, and he’s ludicrously talented.

And Knives Out is ludicrously fun. Johnson’s found the perfect old house in Massachusetts to set his murder mystery; he’s stacked it with props that directly reference, and may even be, the props from Sleuth (1972), which was also one of my favourite twisty movies as a kid; he’s engaged a fun-loving ensemble of glitterati; and then there’s his subversions, spins and extrapolations, none of which I’ll reveal, save one: the poster may imply a true ensemble, but this film has a protagonist and a star, and that’s Ana De Armas (who you hopefully remember fondly from Blade Runner 2049 as Ryan Gosling’s AI girlfriend). The second most prominent character here is played by Daniel Craig, and he shares a lot of scenes with De Armas, essentially supporting her, which is super fun, because she’ll soon be doing the same for him in No Time To Die, the next Bond film (and Craig’s last).

This film is super satisfying. It’s funny, the mystery plot really works, and it also has something to say, which it does with enjoyably righteous anger. Go for the production design and the plot, leave being blown away by De Armas and, once again, Johnson, one of America’s finest. This might be his best film; it’s one of 2019’s most entertaining.

The Last Jedi

DNnhs1tXcAAHgu3.jpg-large

* * * *

Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is the most artful film in the whole series. Working with his usual (but new to the franchise) cinematographer Steve Yedlin, and Series Legend sound designer Ben Burtt, he creates images, moments and sequences that have more visual flair and sonic innovation than the other films. In doing so, he creates a slightly more grown-up feel (even, once or twice, bordering on the arthouse), all to the film’s credit. It’s not only wonderful, it’s fresh.

Perhaps the biggest and boldest cinematic innovation Johnson and Yedlin apply here is a simple one: colour, or to be much more specific, red. This could well become known, of the Star Wars movies, as ‘The Red One’ (or perhaps ‘The Crimson One’); the colour’s use is so blatant, so dramatically present, that it cannot go unnoticed, even by the youngest viewer (or the most under-informed cineaste). It informs the entire experience of the film. Johnson and Yedlin deploy it as a stand-in for blood on a salt planet (with a truly chilling, and seemingly very violent, effect, such that you feel they’re ‘getting away’ with something); as the colour of the armour of a squad of elite imperial guards; and, most theatrically, as the colour of the lair of Big Baddie Snoke, where red simply replaces actual walls and the film veers from fantasy movie ‘reality’ into actual abstraction.

details-on-last-jedi-creatures-snokes-guards-696x464

Rian also advances the cinematic language we’ve come to expect from the film’s action sequences. Here, at climactic moments, he will offer us an absence of sound and spectacle, using silence in lieu of an explosion, destruction seen from a distance. Again, it feels more mature, more cerebral; you’ve seen plenty of big bangs, he seems to be saying, but how often have you taken a moment to contemplate their impact? He also makes far more of small individual moments of tension than is common for the franchise; the film’s first big action sequence comes down to the simple pressing of a finger on a button, and it is nail-biting.

All of this makes the film thrilling experientially, and the character stuff works tremendously as well. In particular, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver get to play off each other (whether or not they’re on the same planet) with wit and emotional resonance. Oscar Isaac also makes a strong impression. The actor not making a big impact this time around is John Boyega, whose Finn definitely takes a narrative backseat to Isaac’s Poe. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher offer substantial  appearances, though their actual performances are a little odd.

The story is convoluted and at times confusing, but that felt, to me, by-the-by. I had a great time at this Star Wars; I felt, as an adult, that I was being catered to on a more substantial level than usual, and that was gratifying. I even liked the little fluffy penguins. I just might go see this one again.

TLJ-Ships-04