Tom Fowler

Mystery and Thriller Writer

Tag: movies

Knives Out is Terrific

Knives Out was the best movie I saw in 2019.

To borrow a line from Red Dead Redemption 2, “The competition ain’t too fierce.” I think this past year saw us go to the theater less than any other. I don’t mean to diminish the movie’s excellence with this, though—it’s terrific, and I would think so if I saw eight or eighty movies last year.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (probably best known for The Last Jedi, which everyone has An Opinion on), Knives Out is a throwback to the murder mysteries of yesteryear. Private detective Benoit Blanc (a scenery-devouring, Southern-drawl-speaking Daniel Craig) is summoned to a mansion to investigate the death of famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (the always-terrific Christopher Plummer). It’s the cast of characters Blanc meets there which makes the movie.

We learn of old Harlan’s demise as the movie opens, though it takes some time to encounter all the suspects, many of whom are the writer’s relatives. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Colette, Chris Evans, and more), and while some probably don’t get enough screen time, all of them are good. They look like they’re enjoying themselves, and they’re in on the fact this is supposed to be a comedy.

Knives Out poster

We also meet Marta (Ana de Armas, a delight), Harlan’s nurse and the last person to see him alive. She has a quirk that she can’t lie without vomiting. It seems random, and it is, but you know it’s going to matter for more than laughs before the movie’s over, and it does. The Thrombey family seemingly likes her, but after their patriarch’s death, they all try to pull one over on Ana, including using her mother’s immigration status against her.

At its heart, though, this is a mystery, and we get plenty of sleuthing. There’s not a lot of action, but the characters and the terrific dialogue make up for it. Blanc isn’t as smart or perceptive as Hercule Poirot, the character upon which he’s obviously and unabashedly based, but he navigates the investigation pretty well. 

This is a movie you’ll want to pay attention to. Lines and details you learn earlier will prove important at the end. I figured out who the killer was—it becomes pretty apparent by the midpoint if you’ve ever seen a movie before—though I missed a detail or two along the way. I thought a couple small things around the demise of Harlan were questionable, but those are minor nitpicks of a very enjoyable film.

If you like mysteries, humor, and character-driven stories, Knives Out has all three. I highly recommend it. 

Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (let’s just call it Thor 3 for short) is raucous, good fun. It features good action scenes, some great images, plenty of laughs, and a story that moves the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) forward. There are some moments where it’s a little too cheeky for its own good, but you can look past them and enjoy the ride.

The movie: Fresh from stopping the demon Surtur (voiced by the great Clancy Brown–yes, the guy who is both The Kurrgan and Mr. Krabs) from starting Ragnarok, thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard. He exposes Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise. The brothers then go in search of their missing father, aided by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Odin tells them that his first daughter Hela (Cate Blanchett) is coming, and he can’t hold her back now that his time is up.

Hela arrives soon enough, laying waste to the brothers and destroying Thor’s hammer Mjolnir in the process. When Thor and Loki flee via the Bifrost, Hela follows and knocks them out into the void of space. She returns to Asgard, where she gains henchman Skurge (Karl Urban) and begins taking over.

Thor crash-lands in a dump, where a bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson) quickly captures him. She takes him to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who puts Thor into his network of arena fighters, all waiting for a crack at the champion. If you’ve seen a trailer for this movie, you know the champion is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). After their fight (which, of course, each thinks he won), Thor recruits the Hulk (and Loki) to help him take Asgard back from Hela. He learns that the bounty hunter who collected him is actually the last remaining Asgardian Valkyrie, and she eventually agrees to go back home and lend a hand.

Thor: Ragnarok

Not the god of hammers.

Heimdall (Idris Elba) has been hiding the people of Asgard from Hela, but she discovers them eventually. Thor and his “Revengers” arrive and the Big Boss Battle ensues. Hela is too strong, however, as she draws her power from Asgard, forcing Thor and Loki to undertake a desperate gambit to stop her.

The writing: Thor 3 hits the notes you would expect from an MCU film. The characters are written well, and their motivations are generally clear and believable. Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie probably has the best arc, though Thor learns quite a bit about himself in the arena against the Hulk and battling Hela at the end. (“Are you the god of hammers?” is a memorable line.)

I mentioned at the beginning that the movie was too cheeky in a few spots. It was legitimately funny, and it showed us that Chris Hemsworth has good comic timing. I think a few scenes were played too much for laughs, though, even at the expense of the characters (including Thor himself a couple times). Those moments aside, the movie entertained me the entire time. Mark Ruffalo gets a good turn as both the Hulk and Bruce Banner, and we get some insight as to the conflict between them. Of course, you’ll want to stay through the credits and see a scene that continues the setup for Avengers: Infinity War.

Thor: Ragnarok is a solid addition to the MCU. It’s probably the funniest movie they’ve made, but despite that, it has serious action chops and a few somber moments that are done well. It’s the best of the three Thor movies, and I say that as someone who liked Thor: the Dark World more than most.

Go see Thor: Ragnarok.

Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is easily the best movie in the DCEU. Considering the competition, I’m sure you could interpret that as damning with faint praise. It’s not. This movie is great. It’s a shining light in a sea of otherwise dreary and mopey grey.

The movie: Young Diana, the princess of the island of Themiscyra, wishes to train with her fellow Amazons. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) initially refuses, but, as Diana grows into a teenager, tells Antiope (Robin Wright) to train the girl harder than any Amazon before.

As a woman, Diana (Gal Gadot, who’s absolutely terrific) has become a great warrior. After training one day, she sees a plane crash off the shores of the island. Diana resuces the pilot, American Air Force Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), on loan to British Intelligence against the Germans. The Germans discover the plane and attack the island, which goes poorly for all of them and a few of the Amazons.

Learning of “the War to End All Wars,” and fearing that war god Ares has returned, Diana and Steve leave Themiscyra, seeking the war. It doesn’t take them long to find it. When they arrive to find the small town of Veld under constant siege by the Germans, Diana is horrified by the Allies’ indifference and takes matters into her own hands. And it’s awesome. Mostly by herself, she lays waste to an entire German batallion.

Womder Woman, as played by Gal Gadot

Diana, Steve, and their small band of misfits have to stop German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) from unleashing chemical weapons and undoing the upcoming armistice. Even when they think they’ve succeeded, Diana discovers that Ares has indeed returned, and she has to stop the god of war to end the war.

The writing: The best part of the writing is the character of Diana (she’s never called “Wonder Woman” in the movie, btw). Credit Gal Gadot for a great performance: she’s fierce, sympathetic, anguished, and curious at the right times and in the right amounts. Good writing and acting went into the humorous fish-out-of-water scenes, as we see this world through Diana’s eyes. The most important thing is that DC finally got a hero right.

See, Diana is the inspiring hero who genuinely wants to help the helpless we should have gotten with Superman in Man of Steel. Instead, we got Sir Mopes-a-Lot. Diana cares about the oppressed, is appalled when the Allied soldiers won’t help, and opens a giant can of whoop-ass on the Germans. It’s tremendous, and if it doesn’t make you want to go out and punch an evildoer in the face, the problem is yours.

The first two acts of the story are really, really good. The third is the generic Fight Against the Big Bad (Ares, in this case). Based on the quality of the first two acts–especially the second–I expected more from the third. It’s not bad, but it’s underwhelming in context. Diana seems to accrue new powers (or more power) in the fight, I guess because she collected enough plot coupons or experience points to level up.

The third act not living up to the first two is all that’s bad here. The boss fight is fine, and the identity of Ares may surprise you if you weren’t paying attention. But this movie earns its accolades on the backs of the actors who turned in good performances, and a script with a damn fine second act.

Go see Wonder Woman.

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Review – Logan


Preamble: this movie review, and others you’ll see on this site, will focus on both the movie and the writing. This is, after all, a site about writing by a writer. This review covers the recent movie Logan, the final entry in the Wolverine saga. Yes, I’m lame enough that I missed it in theaters.

The movie: Logan is set in 2029. In this dreary future, no mutant have been born in the last 25 years. No longer going by Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is driving a limo and dealing with a healing factor that’s no longer working well. The adamantium bonded to his bones is poisoning him and, coupled with his dodgy healing ability, is causing him constant pain.

Logan poster

Logan also cares for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now 90 and suffering from Alzheimer’s. If you think it sounds bad that the world’s most powerful telepath has a brain disease, you’re right: Xavier’s seizures have devastating consequences for anyone around. The movie hints that one seizure killed seven X-Men. Only Logan seems able to function, more or less, during one of these episodes.

Logan and Xavier eventually meet Laura (Dafne Keen, terrific in her film debut), a mutant not born but grown in a lab by Alkali/Transigen. She also has adamantium claws and can regenerate, but she’s eleven, and has all the self-control you might expect from an eleven-year-old. Not surprisingly (though Logan seems surprised for some reason), Wolverine’s DNA runs in her veins. Transigen wants Laura and other escaped young mutants back, and to retrieve them, they send a clone of Logan called X-24.

Laura and the other young mutants are trying to get to North Dakota, where they will cross the Canadian border to some type of sanctuary. (Comic geeks, like me, may presume that Alpha Flight is going to host and protect them.) Transigen, its security chief Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and X-24 find Logan and the kids before this can happen, of course, and we get a pretty epic final battle out of it.

The writing: I’m trying not to spoil anything here, so I’ll just say that the characters (and what happens to them) benefited from good writing. Logan is much a road movie as it is a superhero one. If not for a few mutant powers, this wouldn’t be a superhero movie at all.

The pacing is mostly good, though I think it drags in the second act. Logan was right to want to move on and not stay at the Munson family farm. The resultant scenes were good and moved the story forward, but it vexes me when characters do things they know are dumb. At least there’s a payoff. Also, the Canadian border as some magical sanctuary bugged me. Even if Alpha Flight were there and waiting, Transigen had a squad of Reaver mercenaries. It didn’t appear to be a sure thing, at any rate.

This movie is rated R, and it’s a pretty hard R. There’s a lot of neck stabbing, face stabbing, belly stabbing, leg stabbing . . . this is just a stabby movie. The violence is swift, brutal, and done well. Language is the other factor earning this movie its R rating. (Tidbit: you only get one F-bomb in a PG-13 movie.) I have no problem with cursing in fiction (books, TV, or movies), but several of the F-bombs felt gratuitous. It was like the movie was making up for being constrained in the cursing department with the prior two Wolverine scripts.

The story is good, though, and the characters (both good and bad) are written and portrayed well. I definitely recommend seeing Logan, but know going in that it’s violent, bloody, and sometimes swears to hear itself doing so. But it’s good.

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If you haven’t already, go here to get your free sample chapters and character bios for my upcoming mystery novel The Reluctant Detective!

The Born Identity

I’ve seen all of the Bourne movies. Within the original trilogy, I think each one is a little bit better than the one before it. Throughout the course of the movies (including the recent Jason Bourne), Bourne learns more about himself and his mysterious past.

Let’s talk about identity for a moment.

I think Jason Bourne, as a character, is more compelling when he doesn’t know much about himself.

Odd? Maybe. As writers, we’re supposed to know ourselves and our characters. But do the characters need to know themselves? Many people would probably say yes, and I think most of the time, they would be right. Outside of self-discovery stories, I think the vast majority of characters know themselves. Those who are on that quest to discover themselves tend to succeed.

What if it’s better if they hadn’t?

The rest of the Bourne movies are quite good, and Bourne remains a good character. But in The Bourne Identity, there’s something going on behind the eyes. Bourne looks at things with the mix of a spy’s analysis and a sense of newness and wonder. (This is a big reason Matt Damon’s performance is so compelling.)

Bourne is a good example of a character who doesn’t need to–and maybe shouldn’t–know himself well. Self-discovery stories would be another example. There’s also unreliable narrators, who may not know themselves very well (and probably aren’t being honest about it anyway).

How well do your characters know themselves? Is it important that they do or don’t?

 

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