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KNIVES OUT: A SHARP BLEND OF COMEDY AND WHODUNIT

Writer-director Rian Johnson has only made a handful of films, from his high-school noir debut Brick to the most recent Star Wars epic. Now he’s applied his ingenuity to an old-fashioned whodunit. As a longtime Agatha Christie fan he’s called on deep knowledge of the genre to craft his own, original “perfect crime” movie and laced it with humor from the very start.

The tone is set by Johnson’s casting, beginning with Daniel Craig as a cocky private eye with an accent one character disparagingly compares to Foghorn Leghorn. Craig seems to be having the time of his life indulging in this role, aiding the mostly-clueless detectives on the case, and the feeling is infectious. Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon are the key family members whose shaky relationship with patriarch Christopher Plummer propels the story and they all have their moments… but but the costar who ties Craig for good-humored indulgence in a juicy role is Chris Evans, as one of Plummer’s wastrel grandsons.

The primary setting is a curio-filled mansion, decorated to a fare-thee-well by production designer David Crank and art director Jeremy Woodward. They too seem to have had fun following the “more is more” outlook of their director.

Knives Out is intended as mainstream entertainment but Johnson has  woven a hot-button topic into the fabric of his script, involving Central American immigrant Ana de Armas as Plummer’s devoted caregiver. The conversations that arise give us one more reason to dislike the coddled offspring who are all suspects in this high-profile murder.

I find most movies too long and yearn for the days when Charlie Chan solved murder cases in less than 90 minutes. Johnson’s role models were the all-star exploits of Hercule Poirot which, like this one, weighed in at over two hours so I really can’t quibble. Despite a surfeit of detail and story rebounds, Knives Out is never, ever dull and offers the kind of classy entertainment we could use more of on the big screen. And I have a feeling we’ll see more of Daniel Craig’s colorful character down the road.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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