REVIEW: Knives Out

Everyone loves to play detective. Whether it is investigating a particularly bad break-up or scrutinizing a suspicious rash, we are drawn to the mysterious, the unsolvable. We long to fill that blank where knowledge should be. We long to pull out that red thread and start connecting scraps of newspaper and random headshots, all precariously pinned up on a corkboard. We probe because we care and because we can’t help ourselves. We want the honest truth and nothing but. Rarely, though, are the answers as fascinating as the mystery. The boyfriend was a jerk. Web M.D. categorizes your deadly rash as common (How dare they!). You are left searching for the next great investigation. The mystery of the missing college essay, perhaps? Well, dear detective, search no further than your local movie theater, for I may have just the mystery for you.

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A rich man is found dead on his 85th birthday. Cause of death: suspected suicide. His family is simply heartbroken. Or at least, that is all they will admit to the police detectives assigned to the case. Still, all clues seem to suggest that eccentric author, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) died by his own hand. Case closed, time to get some donuts and coffee. Except…. hasn’t it only been ten minutes since the movie started? That’s the best trick of Knives Out, the one that makes you sit up in your theater seat and pay attention. It is a film most carefully paced. One that knows when to sprint with the audience and when we all need to catch to catch our breath. Knives Out doesn’t try to outthink its watchers, it wants to investigate alongside us. It is a sense of companionship that makes you feel invited into the mystery instead of merely being a spectator. Much of the credit for the warmth of this film must go to Rian Johnson, the writer and director. His script is clever and light on its feet, weaving its way between different characters and emotions. Yet, it never strays too far from the person that is undeniably its emotional center, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas).

For, mysteries are not only fascinating because they try our intelligence, but because of how they can squeeze emotion from our dried-up hearts. We come to care about those involved in the case. We sympathize with some. We accuse all the rest. Mysteries work because the audience is asked to dispense justice, distinguishing who deserves it and who doesn’t. Perhaps that is why it is integral for mysteries such as Knives Out to draw characters precisely. It must have a full idea of who each character is from the start but reveal aspects of that portrait at the right time. Too early and the puzzle clicks together before the popcorn runs out. Too late and the characters become inhuman pieces of a plot. Shrewdly, Knives Out chooses not to define its inhabitants directly. Instead, it allows each character to depict themselves first. Then, it chips away at that conceited image, revealing a truer picture underneath. Using visual cues and contradictory actions, the film allows us to discover who the heroes are for ourselves. Along the way, lies much intrigue and a considerable amount of fun.

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So, dear detective, if you choose to take the case, beware of the enthralling charm of Chris Evans in a cable knit sweater. Perhaps, befriend the friendly gentleman detective (Daniel Craig) who loves singing Sondheim. There is a mystery afoot and you are just the one to help solve it.

PREVIEW: Little Women


I don’t think I can describe the visceral sear of excitement I felt when I heard that Greta Gerwig was directing a Little Women remake. I do feel sorry for anyone who was in my immediate vicinity. There are noises that no human should bear witness to. My squawk-squeal was one of those. And that was before I found out that Saoirse Ronan (who starred in Greta’s previous film, Lady Bird) would be playing Jo March, one of my favorite characters in all of literature. Of course, she will be joined by other three March sisters: Meg (played by Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh). But mainly, Jo and her writing and her cool hats! Though, this will be the seventh film adaptation of the classic 1868 novel, I have no doubt that this star-studded cast along with their talented director will be able to create something altogether new and interesting. Little Women is currently showing at the Michigan Theatre. Tickets can be bought online or at the box office ($8.50 with a student ID).

REVIEW: Marriage Story

The beginning of marriages tends to be well documented. Professions of ever-lasting love on Facebook. Engagement photos on Instagram. Videographers and photographers at the meticulously planned wedding. No detail is too small to be forgotten. Everything must be remembered. The end of marriage, on the other hand, is swept carefully away, only referred to in a past tense long after it has occurred. No one live tweets their divorce. In many ways, then, divorce becomes more personal and less public than even marriage. An intensely shared experience between two people alone. Yet, Marriage Story brings this private process to the big screen without sacrificing any of the awkward, all-too touching intimacy.

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When you marry someone, you know more than enough to love them. When you divorce someone, you know just enough to hurt them. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) obviously know a lot about each other. Years of accumulated knowledge spill out over the opening few minutes as each describes the other, noting many of the little quirks and characteristics that make up their partner. Each detail is the result of loving and being loved. Yet, all this knowledge is not enough to stay in love. For all of the things that Charlie and Nicole do notice about each other, there are other characteristics that they failed to acknowledge. Oversight breeds resentment and grievances overwhelm. Gradually, affection is paired with an equal amount of bitterness. What director Noah Baumbach does so well is portray both the lingering tenderness as well as the animosity. By avoiding depicting a truly hateful divorce, he achieves sympathy for both Nicole and Charlie. Neither want to hurt each other. Yet, the process of separation makes hurt inevitable. For, divorce means an entire disentangling of lives. It means taking separating all the things you once shared together. It means becoming selfish and a little bit petty despite your best intentions. Marriage Story doesn’t avoid depicting the inevitable clumsiness of the process, often in ways that aren’t typically acknowledged by separation stories. A particularly funny and insightful scene, for example, involves Nicole informing her mother and her sister that they can no longer be Charlie’s friends during the divorce. Even families must be disentangled. The process of divorce becomes imagining separate lives when you once could only see them together.

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To their credit, it is even more impossible to imagine the film without the collective brilliance of Johansson and Driver. Each, when given the moment to shine, take the light and reflect it a hundredfold. Johansson is particularly good at modulating her voice, going from a place of resignation and softness to fierce independence. Her face, too, expresses a thousand different feelings in the span of a monologue. It is a revelation after seeing Johansson stiffly emoting in so many Marvel movies. Driver, on the other hand, is most effective with his body. He uses every inch of his tall frame, his physicality always more humorous because of how large he is. Somehow, he depicts Charlie’s lack of self-awareness through slouches and hand gestures alone. The characters are brought to life both by these extraordinary performances and the thoughtful attentions of Baumbach, who wrote the screenplay as well. It is almost uncanny how natural the dialogue is, as if all were improvised or stolen directly from real life. Johansson and Driver deliver his words without a hint of performance, transforming memorized lines into something more honest. Thus, when Charlie and Nicole speak, we pay attention, unable to tear our eyes or ears away from the screen.

Marriage Story is all the moments that you typically cannot glimpse. It is about the messy moments that you don’t show others, for fear of exposing too much. But it is also about how those moments are ultimately necessary. There can be no omelet without first breaking a couple of eggs.

REVIEW: Pain and Glory

We spend most of our life forgetting. We forget the countless minutes and hours that sandwich those few occasions of great importance. Out of those bits of time that are deemed memorable, a whole narrative of life is constructed. All the rest discarded as unimportant. That exhilarating summer afternoon, that moody day spent surfing YouTube, all is reduced to the same monotone muffling. It is a time that we know existed but can no longer prove. Left with only remnants, we can only stitch together a partial picture of what our lives were. Making such a fractured image cohesive is the particular talent of the filmmaker. In two hours or less, they must assemble enough of these pieces to create a character whose life can move believably. Intuitively knowing which piece is most important, knowing which space can be left intriguingly open is why some people are directors and I am relegated to mere critic. I have learned to appreciate the picture all the more, though, especially when it is as beautifully constructed as in Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria is the original title). In his latest film, Pedro Almodóvar assembles critical moments from both his character’s and his own life to create one vivid whole.

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That feeling of artistic fulfillment has been missing from Salvador Mallo’s life for many years now. Mallo (Antonio Banderas) was formerly a critically successful film director. But time has left him with raging migraines, excruciating back pains, and a throat that will close up without warning. At least he still has a glorious shock of grey hair. Each encounter with bodily agony leaves Mallo bent over, literally breathless. Even in the moments where he is temporarily free, pain casts its dusky shadow over his life. It makes all of his movements careful and slow. Getting into a cab is a cautious unwinding of the body, each breath devoted to avoiding further aggravation. Natural movement is repressed out of fear. This physical repression has led to an artistic bridling as well. He cannot direct while being unable to move with his films. It is not only Mallo that instinctively relates his art to his physical state. Art has always been a bodily act as much as a mental one. Physical suffering from art. Michelangelo was afflicted by severe backaches after standing for hours painting the Sistine Chapel. Art from suffering. Frida Kahlo painted herself laying in a hospital hemorrhaging blood. The title of the film, then, refers to both of the binary aspects of art. We create glorious beauty even in the moments of greatest agony.

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Almodóvar, thus, chooses to depict Mallo’s pain unconventionally. Instead of painful, tearing strokes, we see Mallo’s pain in a colorful swirl of animated color. The rest of the film is similarly bright even as it depicts the various indignities of aging. Almodóvar never lets his film get bogged down by the seeming darkness of the present, allowing for a constant light to shine through, especially when Mallo reflects upon his childhood. Loved and guarded by his mother (a brilliant Penelope Cruz), young Salvador discovers much of the inspiration that will fuel his artistic endeavors in the future. The problem becomes combining that young, beautiful idealism with the harsher realities of getting older. It is like drawing a cohesive picture using both crayons and oil paints. This is the problem that Mallo must truly confront, not simply pain, but the fracturing of self that the pain causes. His suffering proves that he is no longer that invincible young man. So, who is he now? Perhaps this film is Almodóvar’s answer to this question. He says it quite beautifully.

PREVIEW: Marriage Story

Until death do us part. That’s what most couples promise each other during their wedding vows. It is a statement, both uplifting and bleak. It expresses the hope of a forever while acknowledging that life has no absolute guarantees. Separation is always a possible outcome. But knowing that doesn’t minimize the pain, startlement, and humiliation when you have to say good-bye to the promise of “Always”. Marriage Story is about one of those good-byes. Except for Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), it can’t be a farewell forever. For, they have a young son to take care of, a family that must be preserved even through divorce. With a star-laden cast and an award-winning director in Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story has all the potential of an incisive and emotional film, perfect to watch during this Thanksgiving break. This film is being shown at the State Theater. Tickets can be bought online or at the box office ($8.50 with a student ID).

PREVIEW: Pain and Glory

Not everyone gets a chance to look back. Most of the time, life moves too quickly or too erratically. To properly track its irregular movements, to be able to tie the story of a life into a neat bundle, is usually an impossible task. But film demands the impossible. In Pain and Glory, Salvador Mallo, a once-fiery film director, has not attempted the impossible in some time. Tired out by the many professional and personal mistakes, weighed down by pain, he is at a standstill. Recounting the life of this brilliant and flawed man is another brilliant and flawed man, director Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar is responsible for such artistic masterpieces as The Skin I Live In. This newest endeavor, Pain and Glory, is once again a hit among critics. However, it is also a far more personal story than Almodóvar has ever written. If you want to experience the impossible and truly take a look at a life in full, Pain and Glory is currently showing at the State Theatre. Tickets can be bought online or at the box office ($8.50 with a student ID).