The first Knives Out movie from writer/director Rian Johnson was such a breath of fresh air back in 2019 it became an immediate sensation for a variety of reasons, including its incredibly meme-able dialogue and settings and the A+ sweater game from costume designer Jenny Eagan.
It was so good it was hard to imagine what a sequel might look or feel like. Thankfully Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, released late last year on Netflix, lived up to the reputation of the first movie and, now that I’ve watched it a couple times to fully appreciate how good it is, I have a handful of random thoughts.
Here we go…
Eagan’s commitment to putting Daniel Craig in an ascot should be awarded in and of itself and I’m only surprised it hasn’t led to a clear and unmistakable uptick in their adoption as a men’s fashion item.
It makes so much sense that Kate Hudson’s performance caught everyone’s attention as she’s terrific as a societally-oblivious pseudo-celebrity, but what really makes it incredible is that all of her reactions to what’s happening around her are so stagey. It’s as if her character has absolutely zero experience in anything not involving mugging for the camera.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Kathryn Hahn’s gubernatorial candidate, who has such genuine reactions to everything, from Duke shooting his gun by the pool to her husband trying to be his own man to the revelation at the end that those reactions nearly become a character of their own.
I know the movie – and The Menu – caught some flack for not going far enough in exploring its “the rich are terrible people” theme but come on. If Edward Norton’s Miles Bron had actually faced some kind of on-screen legal repercussions for his irresponsible actions it would have been written off as frothy wish-fulfillment. As it is he’s set up to be exposed as a massive fraud, which is much more realistic without dipping into fantasy.
Besides, Benoit Blanc spends the last 20 minutes of the movie just repeatedly calling him dumb, which is cathartic enough for the audience.
And Blanc immediately dismisses Birdy when she tries to spin Bron’s actions as “so dumb it’s just brilliant” by clarifying “No, it’s just dumb!” Now if only our technology and political press would be similarly truthful instead of continually succumbing to the myth of the genius.
At least Derol made it out of all that with his chill intact.
If there is an element of the story that isn’t explored enough for my personal liking it’s that Bron’s success is nearly entirely dependent on being a white dude who takes all the credit for a Black woman’s ideas and work and that feels like the most relevant theme especially given [gestures broadly at so many many things].
And, on that note, I very much dug Janelle Monáe’s performance as twin sisters, beginning when she’s introduced smashing the puzzle box and right through to her vengefully breaking all of Bron’s glass sculptures.
Someone give me a Leslie Odom Jr. / Kathryn Hahn buddy comedy STAT or I *will* riot.
Back to a point above, we all believed Norton’s performance as the not-at-all brilliant “genius” because we kind of suspect Norton’s not quite as bright as we’ve been led to believe over the years, right? Not that he’s not a smart guy, but…you get it.
A brief ranking of current big name wrestlers-turned actors:
1. John Cena
2. Dave Bautista
25. Dwayne Johnson
This whole brief sequence with characters looking in the middle distance as shadows pass over them hit me right where I live, evoking all those classic murder mystery noir films I was first exposed to watching “Family Classics” on WGN-TV on Sunday afternoons in the 80s.
Let’s take a moment and recognize how his brief appearance as Efficient Man ranks in the top five of Ethan Hawke’s performances.
It’s been such a long time since I watched a movie where the whole cast looked like they were having a good time. Too often the casts of the big super hero and similar movies look visibly miserable going through the paces and acting against tennis balls held on sticks in place of characters to be added later, it was genuinely relaxing to see an ensemble that appeared to be enjoying themselves and the project they were working on.
Sorry, I’m laughing again at Johnson blowing up his own movie by having Blanc solve the contrived murder mystery five minutes in to Bron explaining how the weekend is supposed to work.
Everyone else yelled “A SCHOONER IS A SAILBOAT” (even if it was just in their heads) when Lionel was working the stereogram on the puzzle box, right? Right?
In a movie filled with committed performances from talented actors Madelyn Cline’s performance as Dallas is near the top of the rankings and I will absolutely die on this hill. It’s so good and shows not only her talent as an actor but Johnson’s ability to make the audience invest in and care about characters that are clearly secondary but still important.
Same goes for Jessica Henwick’s put-upon assistant Peg. If you don’t feel her disappointment and frustration when Birdy reveals she has a secret phone and her resignation when she says “…Did you think a sweatshop is where they make sweatpants?” I’m not sure movies are really your thing.
Oh, along with the Odom Jr. / Hahn buddy comedy I want a direct spinoff where Dallas and Peg team up and create the next big socially-conscious lifestyle goods brand and have all kinds of wacky adventures while doing so.
The Last Jedi is as close to an art film as we’re likely to see from the franchise-centric studio era. It’s nuanced, almost completely free of anything that could be described as “fan service” and confounds expectations at every turn.
Some of that explains why it was so divisive among the audience. They couldn’t bear that Luke Skywalker was so reluctant to fly into battle and save the day, or that they might be expected to consider the plight of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of endless war, or that family heritage might not be the only determination of success.
It’s everything The Force Awakens, which was eminently enjoyable, wasn’t.
The Rise of Skywalker was sold as a big, emotional ending to the Star Wars series, one that was designed to appeal to all generations of fandom. While director J.J. Abrams repeatedly said he wasn’t throwing out some of the plot points from The Last Jedi that caused some of the most vocal haters but that the movie would hopefully meet everyone’s expectations.
Jedi director Rian Johnson’s recent comments that pandering to fans is a mistake, one that runs in the exact opposite direction of what constitutes “art” or what creators should attempt to do, reflect the unconventional approach he seems to have taken when he had his turn at the franchise plate. They certainly offer a clear insight into the mind that made such unexpected choices instead of engaging in two hours of fan service.
That was further on display when Johnson responded to a critic on Twitter, pointing out that it’s much more interesting to show the character of Luke Skywalker as a flawed, complicated character than as a super powered perfect hero who never feels regret or conflict.
Meeting everyone’s expectations is what products are meant to do, which gets to the point made by Martin Scorsese in his latest declaration that such films are crowding out smaller movies that have more artistic goals. That truth is evident anytime you look at your local multiplex, where the latest franchise blockbuster is playing on 10 screens while a more dramatic character drama will be on just one, and likely only at limited times.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Terry Gilliam, who is rightfully concerned that big studios with lots of money are playing it stupidly safe with the choices they make, creating stories with no real stakes and no grounding in reality.
What Johnson created in The Last Jedi was as close to an art film as I’ve ever seen in a franchise entry, with real stakes and a powerful sense of danger for everyone involved. Sure, it takes place in a universe where space wizards fly massive starships to exotic worlds, but everything else about the story was designed to make you unsure of what would happen next and care about the implications of how things transpired.
Luke feeling guilt over his actions and the effects they may have had was real.
Rey feeling unsure of her place in the universe because she didn’t know her family history felt real.
Poe not knowing how to transition from warrior to leader and making mistakes along the way felt real.
Rose feeling anger about how the poor of the universe are taken advantage of for the benefit of the wealthy felt real.
Yoda toying with his student for the lulz and teaching one final lesson as a result felt real.
If the point of art is to challenge audiences, most of the franchise films released in the last dozen years or so don’t meet the definition. Exceptions include Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a handful of others, with The Last Jedi at the top of that list. It takes risks few movies like it have even attempted and does so with panache and humor.
One thing it’s not: A bland, faceless product. It has a point of view and a message, not just a story, and that is so unique in this day and age to make it remarkable.
A good old-fashioned whodunit with an all-star cast comes to theaters hoping for success.
The $25 million tracking estimates for the opening weekend of Knives Out may not seem massive. Such a box office total would signal failure for most movies. While that number indicates audiences might be recovering from seeing Frozen 2 last weekend and saving their movie-going dollars for Star Wars next month, it might still be enough to not only win the weekend but show there’s life in the concept of a non-franchise movie featuring a sprawling ensemble of popular actors.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the movie stars Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Laketh Stanfeild, Daniel Craig and quite a few others. Craig and Stanfeild play investigators summoned to the mansion of Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) after his mysterious death, which just so happened to occur at his birthday party for which the entire family had gathered. All under suspicion and each with their own motives as well as alibis, the sometimes ungrateful children must remain in the home while the killer among them is rooted out.
As Johnson has made clear in numerous interviews, it’s a throwback to the kind of murder mystery films from the 50s and 60s that became staples of broacast television reruns in the 70s and 80s. And while the predictions may indicate some weakness in terms of audience appetite, the 95 percent “Fresh” rating it sports on Rotten Tomatoes shows critics have roundly embraced its entertaining eccentricity.
A magnifying glass with a knife for a handle sits atop the title treatment on the first poster (by marketing agency LA, as are the rest of the posters), released in July. The cast list is presented below along with the copy “Everyone has a motive. No one has a clue.” All those elements, along with the “whodunnit” at the top along with the typeface used combine to sell a classic mystery movie, one where everyone will be suspected at some point and is working against the others as the police try to solve the crime.
“Nothing brings a family together like murder” we’re told on the series of character posters released in September. Each one presents the character in question in a different part of the house where the action takes place and presents them with a description of their role in the family or the investigation, very much in the vein of an Agatha Christie story.
The entire cast is assembled on the theatrical poster from October, with the Harlan’s children and others arranged behind him. This time the tagline betrays a much more playful attitude, reading “Hell, any of them could have done it.” It’s a great way to upend audience expectations and communicate the fact that this is a fun time at the theater, not a scary horror film of any sort.
The first trailer (12.4 million views on YouTube) was released in early July and establishes the premise right away, that Thrombey family patriarch Harlan was killed following a party celebrating his 85th birthday. The detectives sent to the estate to investigate understandably suspect an attendee is responsible and so ask everyone to stay put until they find who did it. From there it’s all about the mystery as we see the Thrombey’s aren’t exactly a tight, loving family and each could have their own reasons for not only killing the old man but wanting those around them to go down for the murder.
Everyone’s “waiting for the big reveal” in the second trailer (6.5 million views on YouTube), released in September. This one is even more loose and fun than the first, focusing on the infighting of the family members as Blanc and the other investigators seek to uncover who killed Harlan and why. The whole cast gets a turn to shine as the movie is presented as a breezy and entertaining whodunit with a house full of suspects and motives.
The final trailer (388,000 views on YouTube), released in October, is short but to the point. Specifically, it sells the movie not on the story but on the positive reviews that have come out so far, positioning it as a rip-roaring good time and the most entertaining film of the year with a top-notch cast.
Online and Social
In contrast to many recent efforts, the movie’s official website features good information that heightens anticipation of the film. In addition to the usual marketing content, the front page of the site lets you click on the faces of the main characters, allowing you to see the poster they’re featured on along with a bit more background and some photos to download. It’s not much, but it’s something and a nice element to include given the cast. In acknowledgement of the film coming out around Thanksgiving there are also place cards with each character and their defining trait that can be printed out for your holiday table, including one with Johnson labeled “The murder mystery master.” Last month there were pumpkin design stencils available as well.
Advertising and Publicity
While there had been plenty of press coverage around casting and other production updates, the first real promotion came when Lionsgate brought Johnson and members of the cast to CinemaCon in March to get the ball rolling. An extended scene was shown two months later at CineEurope.
In July it was named among the films screening at the Toronto Film Festival as part of the “Special Presentations” lineup, a screening that brought almost universal praise for the story, direction and performances. Later it was named the London Film Festival’s Gala movie and had a Fantastic Fest screening announced in August. In October it screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, with appearances by Johnson and Shannon.
The Get Your Cut contest was announced in September, encouraging fans to hunt for clues and hidden messages scattered throughout the posters and trailers in an effort to win $250,000, positioned here as part of Harlan’s fortune he put aside for fans. A later message from Harlan’s personal attorney (played by Frank Oz) and a recording from Harlan himself continued promoting the contest.
TV advertising started in mid-October with a deluge of spots – a dozen at first with more coming after that – highlighting different aspects of the family, their motivations, the search for Harlan’s killer and more. While they take slightly different approaches, the commercials reinforce the impression from the trailers that this is a fun star-studded whodunit.
AMC Theaters offered an exclusive interview with Johnson where he talked about the story and working with the impressive cast.
In early November Lionsgate released a series of videos inviting you to “Meet the Thrombeys.” Each one was created to be a promotional video of sorts for that family member’s business. So Joni is selling Flam – which also has a website -, her lifestyle brand, Walt is selling Blood Like Wine Publishing – which also got its own website – and announcing his promotion to CEO and Linda is selling her real estate business, which also has a site. Each one is filled with “slashing” puns to reinforce the nature of the movie.
The first clip, released in early November, shows Ransom arriving at the family mansion and blowing off the investigators already on the scene. A second clip shows the assembled family being asked to stick around while the investigators find the guilty party while a third has Linda confronting Blanc.
Online ads used some combination of the key theatrical art and images from the character posters along with video clips in various units.
The positive reviews the movie had received were used in a final TV commercial that pegged it as a fun experience for audiences.
Johnson extended a “personal invitation…to murder” to the audience in a video designed to play like an old-fashioned movie trailer, the kind that has directors like Alfred Hitchcock. In fact you can see just the kind of thing being referenced in the trailer for Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s another way Johnson is paying homage to the films that inspired him.
Outdoor billboards (by marketing agency Art Machine) used the same art of the assembled family seen in the theatrical one-sheet and outdoor ads. Notably, an alternate version of the billboard design showed the family from the back, each clutching a knife in their hands as if they’re ready to use it on each other at a moment’s notice.
Media and Press
An interview with Johnson during the Toronto screening allowed him to talk about his love of the murder mystery genre, what it was like working with such a big-name cast and transitioning from the massive spectacle of Star Wars to the smaller scale of this film. The cast offered their comments on how the movie provided some good alternative to family dinners during its Thanksgiving release window.
In a couple interviews from Toronto, Johnson even started speculating there could be more movies if this one does well. He also spoke with Curtis about how the movie’s story is intentional commentary on issues of wealth and privilege.
The cast shared one of their favorite moments from the few scenes they were all in together. A brief interview with just Evans had him talking about his inspiration, wardrobe and more.
Talk show appearances included Evans and Shannon on “The Tonight Show,” Johnson on “Kimmel,” Craig on “The Late Show,” Curtin on “Today” and more.
de Armes was part of THR’s “Next Gen Talent” feature in November, with the actress talking about her reluctance to join the film as well as how the script is what won her over.
An interview with Johnson had him talking about how this film was just as important to him as his franchise work and how it fits into his overall filmography.
At the movie’s premiere Johnson and the cast talked about their love of murder mysteries and how such stories can be reflections of the current political climate. An interview with the director had him talking about how hard he worked to get the movie made in the time available, how some fortunate coincidences allowed him to assemble the cast he wanted and more. Another had him sharing his mystery genre influences.
EW hosted an early Thanksgiving dinner with Rian and the cast talking about the movie and having a generally good time.
You think your family gets wild at Thanksgiving? You haven't seen anything yet! 😀
Curtis and costar Katherine Langford appeared on stage to present an award at the recent American Music Awards ceremony.
There were two featureprofiles of Ana de Armas, spotlighting her as a breakout star in this movie who is poised for even more fame in the coming months with other projects coming out.
I’m hooked. As if I wasn’t a big enough Rian Johnson fan after his previous films – including what’s objectively the best Star Wars movie in the series – the way he conveys the fun he had in crafting this movie from beginning to end is infectious. That’s helped, in my own case, by recognizing exactly the type of movies he was inspired by and wanted to recreate here. They’re just the kind that were shown on “Family Classics” on WGN-TV in Chicago in the 80s on Sunday afternoons, the kind your parents would turn on after church while everyone is relaxing.
Everything about the campaign is just fun, showing you don’t need to make every mystery story into some deep, dark examination of the twisted nature of the human soul. Instead, as early reviews have indicated, it’s a lighthearted examination of the twisted nature of the human soul, including elements of class privilege both real and imagined.
Without a recognizable brand for the film’s marketing to latch on to, Johnson has become that brand hook, putting himself front and center throughout the campaign to act as the public face of the movie. That’s summed up nicely in the throwback trailer released last week but it’s seen in all the interviews he’s done and in the way the cast has praised his directorial style and work ethic on set.
For the third time in as many years, Disney/Lucasfilm are bringing Star Wars to theaters just in time for the holidays. After successfully reintroducing the franchise with 2015’s The Force Awakens, we took a detour away from the core “Saga” that has been the focus of the movies to date in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Now we’re back to the story of the Jedi and the fight against the powers of darkness in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The story picks up right where The Force Awakens left off, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds the self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who she hopes will help her learn who she is and what her destiny might be. Meanwhile, The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) continues its fight against the ascendant First Order, ruled by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) along with Chewbacca and a bunch of porgs keep fighting the good fight while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to emote across the entire galaxy while trying not to be the Diet Coke of evil.
With so much Star Wars hype and promotion over the last three years, the franchise lately has never seemed far out of reach. To sell The Last Jedi effectively and forcefully, Disney has worked hard to make sure the campaign sells a compelling and unique product to the audience.