Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Dark Waters and Knives Out

Atrocities Addressed
(as best they can be)

Reviews by Ken Burke

I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.

No Short Takes this week as both of these examples of intriguing cinema deserve a full exploration.

                      Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)   rated PG-13

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Here’s another “based on a true story” film (not announced as such with graphics, but it smells too much of the slimy reality of our nation’s lost-perspectives to be assumed as fiction; besides, we end with a good result for those involved but not the sort of fiery courtroom victory we’d expect from a well-orchestrated-movie), this one about Ohio lawyer (originally from West Virginia) Robert Bilott (played marvelously by Mark Ruffalo) showing support for his roots by taking on a long, difficult case from his grandmother’s area of Parkersburg, W.Va., helping a farmer friend of hers whose farm’s been devastated by some sort of poison, killing his cows, likely a toxic runoff from a nearly DuPont chemical company landfill.  Opening friendly interactions with DuPont quickly go sour when they claim (with EPA support) the problems are all the farmer’s fault through his mismanagement, but Bilott’s determined to prove otherwise, especially when he finds mention in an enormous delivery of legal discovery papers of a virtually-unknown manmade chemical called PFOA, used in the production of Teflon but deadly to any living organism exposed to too much of it.  As the years from 1998 ultimately to 2015 drag on more evidence mounts in favor of Bilott’s investigation, yet he continues to face resistance not only from DuPont officials but also many of the citizens of Parkersburg who depend on the huge nearby DuPont plant for their livelihoods.  You can easily find out what happens with a simple Google search, but keeping with my usual no-spoilers-option I’ll still “hide” some of the results in my full review in case you’d care to encounter this most-worthwhile-film on your own before knowing all its details (or just read away below, what the hell!).  Right now it’s hard to find Dark Waters in a theater, but hopefully availability will continue to spread; it’s certainly worth finding, seeing, learning from it.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: (This film frequently notes specific dates central to its content, so I’ll build this section of the review on those chronological markers; because this is a docudrama based on fact you can explore much more background of this crucial-to-all-of-us-situation by reading these extensive details from The New York Times [a primary source for the screenplay], then check out this Slate analysis of fact vs. fiction [mostly fact, except such minor additions as the protagonist enjoying an occasional Mai Tai—not a bad choice if he does; made properly, as I pride myself in doing, those cocktails are delicious], and if you want some info about lawyer Bilott from his firm you can go here.  Now, with all that background at your disposal, here’s how it’s used within the film.)  We begin in 1975 with 3 teenagers climbing over a private-property-signed-fence to a lake for a night swim in Parkersburg, West Virginia (I didn’t catch whether this lake belonged to the DuPont chemical company, but later events imply it did; I also don’t know if our later-lawyer-protagonist was supposed to be one of those kids, but it doesn’t really matter [except for dramatic irony]) only to be chased away by a couple of guys in a boat who then start spraying something into the water.  Cut to 1998, the huge law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Cincinnati, OH where Robert Bilott’s (Mark Ruffalo) just been made a partner (with Tom Terp [Tim Robbins] in charge of daily operations), but his celebration’s cut short by the arrival of a Parkersburg farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who’s got boxes of VHS tapes, complaints of the cows on his farm being poisoned (leading to mutations, sicknesses, deaths) by the nearby DuPont plant.  Bilott—whose firm represents such chemical-company-clients—tries to help him find more local lawyers who could be of service, but Tennant wants Bilott because this gruff, desperate old guy’s a neighbor of Rob’s grandmother, Alma White (can’t find the actor in a cast list); besides, DuPont’s the major employer of Parkersburg so no one there really wants to ruffle their feathers anyway.  Bilott drives the many miles back to Grandma’s for a short visit, explores the destruction of Tennant’s herd (190 cows buried), returns home to view the ghastly images on the videotapes, takes his concerns to Terp who’s not that supportive, nor is Rob’s wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), who's more focused on the need for financial stability in their family, including their new baby.  At a major DuPont event (celebrating their slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry”), Bilott contacts company honcho Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), initially interested in the situation but undercuts Tennant’s claims by producing an Environmental Protection Agency report (helped by DuPont) which blames Tennant for his troubles, claiming gross mismanagement of his property.  Bilott wants to sue DuPont, so Terp says keep it quick and simple.

 1999: The Tennant case drags on as Bilott now learns about a deadly, human-created chemical compound, PFOA (or C8 because it’s formed by joining 8 carbon molecules to make the no-stick cooking-pan-revolution, Teflon, but it doesn’t break down so it easily contaminates soil and water [along with organic bodies such as cows—and humans; as this film progresses Bilott’s aware of a growing stroke-like-reaction in his body, causing him to shake, at times collapse]).  Rob’s convinced Wilbur’s farm’s been polluted from a landfill where DuPont dumped PFOA residue but can’t get much info because the government knows nothing about this substance (or many others like it), has no regulation in place (Rob can’t even find it on the Internet, has to have a chemist explain it to him).  Further pressure on Phil leads to his insulting response then a legal response in the discovery phase of Tennant’s case where dozens of boxes of papers are sent to Bilott, totally overwhelming him especially when he won’t let others help, afraid these materials might somehow be deadly; meanwhile, Wilbur’s shunned in his hometown for daring to disturb DuPont, whose resources of their huge nearby factory practically provide ownership of Parkersburg.  2000: Rob finds evidence of C8 in the Ohio River, becomes concerned for the health of others beyond Wilbur’s farm; Sarah’s getting frustrated with the time/energy he’s putting into this case (she gave up her own law career to become a homemaker) until he explains it all to her, including how DuPont’s aware of cancer in the PFOA line workers, leading to illness, deformed babies, etc.  Wilbur’s cynical anything useful with come of Rob’s efforts even as Rob testifies to the EPA.  2001: Rob and Sarah take testimony in W.Va., even as DuPont claims the water there is safe.  2002: Terp’s become very supportive, the Taft firm’s more involved, outside lawyer Harry Deitzler’s (Bill Pullman) added to the team.  2003: A new study’s issued on unreported dangers of Teflon.  2004: DuPont promotes a “safe Teflon” campaign, but medical evidence piles up over their denials, the EPA fines DuPont $16.5 million.  2005: Bilott gets 69,000 W.Va. volunteers to take a blood test in exchange for $400 each, even as many believe DuPont won’t be found guilty of any wrongdoing (largely staying loyal to the company's necessary financial support of their community)2009: Wilbur dies, some Parkersburg folks are upset with no resolution in the case after 10 years2011:  Rob’s sick but recovers, the blood tests finally show huge medical problems with the W.Va. population, Rob moves ahead with a class action suit (over 3,500 claimants); DuPont counters by challenging them individually in court, so Bilott must defend each one, consistently winning with damages larger in each verdict.  2015: DuPont finally settles all claims for a total of $670.6 million, but Bilott’s still fighting to protect the larger population as Teflon’s now made with a different carbon base, there are some 600 other unregulated chemicals like PFOA, and it’s estimated 99% of Earth’s species—including us—have this stuff in our bodies.⇐

So What? Even though a film like this has plenty of built-in-drama as a crusading lawyer—who’d once represented the very sorts of clients he chooses to take on in this pursuit of justice—challenges DuPont’s knowingly-dangerous-disposal of toxic chemicals, it can become a bit of a slog to audiences in movie theaters who not only want to see corporate criminality brought down but also desire a triumphant conclusion as all the hard work of research, litigation, and courtroom dynamics proves victorious.  The potential problem here is—just like with the frustrated citizens of Parkersburg who either seek compensation for the difficulties they’ve suffered because of DuPont or hope to see this whole traumatic episode resolved so their DuPont-financed-lives can return to normal after a decade of endless waiting—we have to march slowly through time, hoping to find resolution to this horrid injustice, as legal procedures in our world (which this story's based entirely on) don’t race along like they do in a 2-hour-movie or even-shorter-TV episode where the forces of good find victory in a relatively-concise-manner.  When we’re forced to wade through the swamp of legal-procedure-reality we see that no matter how valid the claims of the plaintiffs, how atrocious the actions of cold-hearted, profit-driven businessmen, how condemning the evidence seems to us when Bilott’s finds what DuPont had hoped would stay buried in that mountain of paperwork, conclusions aren’t necessarily fastly-forthcoming, lawsuits can be manipulated for years to prevent accusations from even coming to trial, murky circumstances (in this case the lack of regulations on PFOAs which, fortunately, was countered by a West Virginia law allowing that if a plaintiff can prove he/she was exposed to a toxin the defendant must pay for regular medical tests so if this person later becomes ill he/she can file for retroactive damages) might derail even the most seemingly-airtight-cases if the opposing lawyers are clever enough in their rebuttals.  We witness much of this diversion in Dark Waters, giving us reason to fear Bilott’s years of work might have been useless (unless, of course, we’ve done an Internet search about these events before going to the theater or read the rarely-found-spoiler-filled-review such as the ones Two Guys in the Dark gleefully present, especially if you’d rather read our account than trek out to a cinema-palace—even as we hope public screenings of films continue to thrive despite the ongoing challenges from premium-cable-networks or streaming from major media companies, as is the case with The Irishman [Martin Scorsese; review in our November 21, 2019 posting], now available almost only through your home computer despite its likelihood as a major awards contender) ⇒until we realize it’s unlikely such a major motion picture would've been produced if Bilott had been decisively-defeated by DuPont.⇐

 From a desired-dramatic-standpoint, then, Dark Waters has to work hard (which it successfully does) to keep our attention through the years where Rob’s working diligently but seemingly getting nowhere due to the tremendous opponent he faces when even his boss and his wife both get frustrated with the slow pace of his quest, despite being committed to supporting him.  Haynes manages to maintain our interest through a combination of slowly revealing the gross atrocities DuPont willingly perpetrated on the citizens of several states with their cavalier dumping of a deadly chemical, allowing us to build our frustration into revulsion as evidence is uncovered plus giving us a superb performance from Ruffalo (Oscar-worthy? Possibly, although he’s already got a lot of solid competition.) who carries the film because ultimately all the others are a bit peripheral, except for Wilbur, but he dies before getting full satisfaction from what finally occurs in the courtroom.  The mood’s almost consistently downbeat here, from Wilbur’s first appearance, with the W.Va. scenes especially an intentional misery to watch (desaturated hues, predominately shades of blue, brown, or grey), our fear Bilott will falter due to his increasing physical difficulties, yet he survives to fight on for those he feels must be defended because they’re left behind by all others intended to protect them (just as our EPA’s become a shell of its former self under the disgusting, imposed Trump-restrictions defying science, public health, stability of our environment in favor of continued profits for fossil-fuel and chemical companies while our planet continues to deteriorate).  Despite his ultimate victory (I can’t keep dancing around this fact, despite my spoiler-avoidance-intentions), Bilott’s situation may just mirror those explored by other whistleblowers/crusaders in other based-on-fact-films, as well-explored in a marvelous review by G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle where he praises the public service of the heroes in such films as Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1983)—exposure of nuclear contamination by Oklahoma’s Kerr-McGee Corp.—The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999)—defiance of the lies of the tobacco industry—Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)—exposure of Pacific Gas & Electric’s contamination of drinking water in southern California—yet laments how the corporations involved, despite legal losses/huge fines, continue to operate much as before, just as others like them pay up in court for specific sins yet still harm us and our living conditions in a money-driven-society (my Musical Metaphor for the next review below could apply here also) where our supposed governmental watchdogs are far too often kept on a short leash: “For some corporations that are too big to fail, human lives are far less important than their reputations and profits.”  He finishes by quoting from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925): “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  Dark Waters is an uplifting film but ultimately haunted by the recurring failures Fitzgerald warned us against ages ago.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Still, no matter how dismal our prospects might be in trying to bring some level of meaningful, lasting change when moneyed interests keep pushing us back into defeat, we can take heart principled people such as lawyer Robert Bilott (who could have just continued his climb in a successful firm, helping the rich get richer, himself in the process) and filmmaker Todd Haynes (with a fine career already, addressing topics not often found in mainstream cinema such as Safe [1995], Far from Heaven [2002], the astounding I’m Not There [2007], Carol [2015; review in our January 11, 2016 posting]) continue to swim furiously against the negative-tide identified just above by Johnson and Fitzgerald, as explored in this article about Bilott (including disagreements with his stance on companies such as DuPont) and this short interview (4:54) with Ruffalo, Haynes, and the real Robert Bilott.  The CCAL’s been generally supportive, with a hearty 92% set of positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a slightly-less-enthusiastic 73% average score at Metacrtic (means “generally favorable reviews” by their standards; more details on both [along with numbers on the movie reviewed just below in the Related Links section much farther down]), although audiences haven’t had much chance to see it yet because after 2 weeks in release it’s now in only 94 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters so its gross thus far is only about $1 million, leaving it a far cry from the pop-art-champ currently at the top of the box-office-charts, Disney’s Frozen II (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee) playing in 4,440 domestic venues, raking in $292 million domestically, a global haul of $745 million (I guess the choice between sparkling ice or polluted water’s clear enough, but I do hope enough people see Dark Waters to appreciate yet another aspect of how our environment’s being ruined [us along with it], all for the benefit of those who make our mass-commodity products, buy our mass-commodity politicians).  OK, enough editorializing from my completely-partisan-left-coast-soapbox, although I do hope you’ll consider Dark Waters if it comes to a theater or video option near you as it’s an extremely-well-made-film providing a useful lesson in the difficulties faced by those directly impacted by toxic-disinterest in the common good (along with the rest of us ultimately) vs. the hard economic choices faced by those who ought to take a strong stand opposing such abuse but don’t due to tangible fears of alienating their necessary employers.

 To spare you any further diatribes inspired by this subtly-powerful-film, I’ll close with my usual tactic of a Musical Metaphor, which this time could be John Denver’s "Country Roads, Take Me Home" (on his 1971 Poems, Prayers & Promises album) if I wanted to use it ironically as Haynes does in his soundtrack (West Virginia’s far from “Almost Heaven” in this film) but a more appropriate choice for me (also from the Dark Waters soundtrack, strong under the closing credits) is “I Won’t Back Down” (written by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, on Petty’s 1989 Full Moon Fever album) as done most-effectively by Johnny Cash at (on his 2000 American Recordings III: Solitary Man album) because Cash to me personifies the grit Bilott needed to persevere against such strong odds for so many years, just as the lyrics speak of unyielding-determination: “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell But I won’t back down.”  Bilott refused to wilt under pressure (“No, I’ll stand my ground”); have we got the spine to do the same in the era of Trump?  Stay tuned during the ongoing impeachment hearings and whatever might come into 2020.
                    Knives Out (Rian Johnson)   rated PG-13

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): A famous, elderly mystery novelist (Christopher Plummer) celebrates his 85th birthday with his large family but is found the next morning with his throat slit.  The local police easily declare this a suicide, but a prominent private detective’s secretly hired onto the case to determine if the death was, in fact, the result of murder with many of the man’s close relatives easy suspects when further investigations reveal he had run-ins with several of them on the night of his party with additional trauma coming later when they find out he’d recently changed his will to cut all of them out in favor of his young, devoted nurse.  As grim as all this might sound, though, it’s largely an hilarious comedy with an excellent lead performance by Daniel Craig as the Southern-accented-private-eye never satisfied with easy explanations, especially as he finds more of the truth behind this infighting-infested-family with the testimonies of equally-effective Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, and others, all attempting to regain their supposed-inheritance from nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who, as revealed to us early on via flashback, certainly seemed to have played a part in the old man’s death by accidently injecting him with a full vial of deadly morphine rather than his nightly prescription of pain killer (not a spoiler, I swear, as this is a foundational plot point in what's a delightful—if sometimes macabre—movie).  What happens as this story continues to unfold would get us deeply into spoiler territory, though, so either find some time to see Knives Out for yourself (I’m almost ready to do so again just to verify a couple of crucial points in the rapidly-presented-narrative), easy to find in thousands of theaters, or just read the entire magnificent review below if curiosity overwhelms you.

Here’s the trailer:

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

What Happens: Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) an extremely-successful-mystery writer, but when we first see him (after long tracking shots up toward his huge Massachusetts countryside mansion, then through hallways and rooms of his multi-story home) he’s lying on a couch, dead with his throat slit, a horrid morning surprise to his housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson).  Through flashbacks—there are many to finally provide the plot details a successful mystery story keeps partially hidden until the great reveal at the end—we learn Harlan had an 85th birthday party with his large family, then retired upstairs accompanied by his with-him-for-years-nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas).  However, during the evening he’d confronted 4 family members with bad news: (1) Son-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson)—married to Harlan’s daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), herself an imperial presence, second only to commandeering Dad, parents of snide-adult-son Ransom (Chris Evans)—is revealed, with photos, having an affair (pics show only a brunette from the back giving us fleeting reason to think it’s Marta [it isn’t]), Harlan putting a note in his desk intended to reveal this indiscretion to Linda; (2) Ex-daughter-in-law Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette)—a widow (Harlan’s older son, Nell, died) generously kept within the family—is confronted by Harlan who now knows she’s been taking double payments for her daughter, Meg‘s (Katherine Langford), college tuition ($100,000 per year) so all that money’s to be cut off; (3) Harlan’s younger son, Walt's (Michael Shannon), constrained running his father’s publishing business because Dad still controls everything, including refusing adaptations of his extensive works, so Walt feels useless until Dad “relieves” him of such misery by firing him; (4) Harlan also has a nasty confrontation with grandson Ransom, telling him he wrote a new will cutting all of them off, leaving everything to Marta, causing Ransom to storm out.  While there’s no note left by Harlan about his death, the local police, led by Detective Lt. Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield), assume it’s suicide, although famed private eye Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) been mysteriously hired to look into the case so he’s there for family interrogations as well; what he’ll find out (not a spoiler; we see it in flashback early on) is Marta and Harlan played a nightly game of Go (frustrating him as she always won, just like Ransom, while no one else could beat Harlan) before she gave him his usual shot of pain meds, followed sometimes by a little morphine to help him sleep.  This night, though, the medicine vials were knocked onto the floor with the Go board when Harlan choose to disrupt his sure-loss, so after the procedure Marta was terrified, realizing she’d used the wrong one, injecting Harlan with a fatal morphine overdose leaving only 10 min. for him to live because Marta couldn’t find the antidote vial in her medical bag.

 His mystery-writer-mind in overdrive, Harlan has Marta depart the mansion to go home so she can note the time of midnight to Walt, on the front porch smoking a cigar.  Yet, her real task ([unbelievably] hurried as it must be within those precious 10 min.) is to park her car out of range of the security cameras, trudge through the muddy woods back to the house, climb up a trellis to Harlan’s floor, enter through a window hidden behind a secret panel in the hall, put on some of Harlan’s clothes, walk downstairs where Walt’ll see him then shoo him back up to bed (thereby establishing an alibi for Marta being gone while Harlan’s still alive).  When she gets back upstairs, though, Harlan assumes he’s almost dead (she wanted to call an ambulance, but he said it would take at least 15 min. to arrive given their isolation [yet I'll bet it took more than 10 min. for all Marta did after the dreaded-injection]), cuts his throat so we know it’s truly suicide but also assume Marta’s got shared responsibility because of the medical-mix-up; she hurries down the trellis again, only to be seen at the bottom by near-comatose Great-Grandma Wanetta Thrombey (K Callan).  By a week later Harlan’s buried (Ransom‘s criticized for not attending the funeral), the family gathers for the will reading by lawyer Alan Stevens (Frank Oz), with all (but Ransom) shocked by the new results, all of them descending on Marta to renounce her fabulous windfall until Ransom drives up, whisks her away (as they talk later in a cafĂ© she tells him what really happened with Harlan on that fateful night).  The Thrombey family’s only hope is to have Blanc somehow find Marta responsible for Harlan’s death so the “slayer rule” would negate her inheritance, but more complications soon ensue.  ⇒News media descend on Marta’s home which she shares with her mother (Marlene Forte) and sister (we’re never sure where they’re from because various Thrombeys blithely cite 4 different South American countries), with the mother an undocumented immigrant whom Harlan was also hoping to protect; Walt shows up, tries to convince Marta his family could use the wealth for lawyers to protect her Mom (she rejects his ploy, saying she could pay lawyers herself), then she gets an anonymous note on the copy of a partial toxicology report saying “I know what you did” so she’s frightened, goes with Ransom to the medical examiner’s office only to find it destroyed by fire at which point Benoit and the cops show up, finally catch them after a wild chase, but arrest Ransom because Great-Grandma's identified him as the person descending the trellis.  Marta confesses everything to Benoit, then on the way back to the Thrombey mansion she stops at a mysterious address emailed to her, finding Fran overdosed with morphine, about to die, so Marta administers CPR, calls an ambulance.  Back at the estate, Marta’s about to confess everything when Benoit finds a full copy of the toxicology report hidden by Fran (she got it from her cousin who worked at that office) showing no morphine in Harlan’s body; Blanc surmises Marta give Harlan the pain meds after all, somehow sensing the correct vial even though it had the morphine label.⇐

 Some further questioning of Ransom by Blanc and the cops—along with insightful surmises by super-sleuth Benoit—finally reveals the full truth: After Ransom left the party he followed the same tactics Harlan specified later that crucial night to Marta about parking out of sight of the cameras (maintained by Mr. Proofroc [M. Emmet Walsh, in a brief-but-welcome-appearance earlier in the investigation]), climbing to the upper floor via the trellis, but his tactic was to switch the labels on Marta’s vials (presumably she kept her nurse’s bag upstairs for the nightly injections) so she’d make the fatal mistake, then could be found guilty via Blanc’s insights (which she almost was until the last minute) as Ransom was Benoit’s secret employer, trying to use him to nullify the new will.  This plan was thwarted by Harlan’s throat-cutting, bringing about the suicide pronouncement, so Ransom had to find a new strategy, which he attempted to do during Harlan’s funeral by slipping back into the upstairs room (I think, to get Marta’s long-unretrieved nurse’s bag, presumably with more morphine in it, but, truly, I didn’t fully follow that part of the rapidly-described-wrap-up) when he’s secretly seen by Fran (remember her?) who sent him the “I know what you did” note, so he forwarded it to Marta to rattle her, somehow got Fran to that mysterious address emailed to Marta, shot her up with too much morphine so Marta’d get blamed for her death, presumably then taken out of the inheritance picture (some of this known by Marta from a few words Fran mumbled before she passed out).  While Benoit’s confronting Ransom with all this Marta gets a phone call which she says is news Fran’s still alive, encouraging cocky Ransom to admit the truth of all those Blanc assumptions with the confidence there wouldn’t be enough actual evidence to even convict him of attempted murder (although Great-Grandma did see him coming down the trellis on suicide night, mistakenly thinking it was him again when she saw Marta), at which point Marta vomits on Ransom (she has a condition causing such a traumatic reaction when she lies*; this is a recurring plot element, but if the director can keep all these revelations from you for almost 2 hours I can certainly do it through the previous 2 paragraphs) because she’s lied, Fran’s dead, but the cops now have a recording of Ransom’s testimony so he’s led away in handcuffs (after he attempted to kill Marta with a knife from a display of such weapons serving as a centerpiece in one of the rooms, but this was just a stage prop, taking us back to Harlan noting how appearances can be deceiving in a much-earlier-flashback).  All of these issues now resolved, the Thrombeys leave the house for good as Marta watches them from an upper balcony, now the owner of all of Harlan’s valuable properties.⇐

*I’ll pass along the warning to avoid this movie for those suffering from the condition known as emetophobia, an intense fear of anything relating to vomiting (including expiration dates on food, possibly undercooked food, or seeing other people vomit), causing a severe illness or nausea.

So What? I hadn’t intended the What Happens section to be so long, but there’s lots of complicated plot here (much of it delivered in an amusing manner), needing extensive space to even attempt to explain (without covering all of it, including Jacob Thrombey [Jaeden Martell], adolescent son of Walt and wife Donna [Riki Lindhome]—she’s marginally in group scenes but not as a necessary character within all this chaos—seeming to be a proto-Nazi who overhears some of the talk between Harlan and Ransom from his bathroom-location where he presumably spent much of his evening enjoying masturbation), so if you’d prefer a recap (11:01) on video (ad interruption at about 8:00) of the major narrative elements, twists, and ending without having to reread all my verbiage, please help yourself (full of spoilers if that’s a concern; if not, there’s lots of images from the movie to enhance what you see in the trailer or my few illustrations)Knives Out’s lauded by the CCAL as a fabulously-entertaining-throwback to the types of detective stories popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his Sherlock Holmes mysteries in print (many adapted for the screen) or the explorations of Agatha Christie (Knives Out has some resonances with Christie’s Death on the Nile [1937]: Hercule Poirot’s on a tourist boat in Egypt when socialite Linnet Doyle’s killed so he must deduce the murderer from the other travelers, adapted to a movie [John Guillermin, 1978] with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and its own all-star-cast [another’s planned for late 2020, Kenneth Branagh directing/starring]); coincidentally (I assume) Knives … plot of a patriarch’s suicide with his riches going to an unlikely recipient reminds me a novel I recently finished, John Grisham’s The Testament (1999), where a billionaire writes a new will just before killing himself, leaving almost everything to a previously-unknown (to the rest of his family) illegitimate daughter, leading a lawyer on a lengthy search for her in the jungles of Brazil.  I enjoyed both of those related-narratives (although Grisham’s book’s intentionally more serious than any of these movies), just as I thoroughly did with Knives Out, although it moves very quickly most of the time (lots of intercutting of various present scenes with themselves and the flashbacks to keep up with) which can be somewhat confusing, is a bit (by design, I’m sure) overbearing with many closeups giving a disconcerting sense of what we’re supposed to discover (until we actually do) as we know Harlan kills himself so there’s no mystery murderer hidden within the family, ⇒with my main concerns being what’s really going on when Ransom sneaks upstairs during the funeral, what Fran actually sees of his actions, how Ransom knows it’s Fran who sent him the “I know …” note (presumably with a copy of the full toxicology report, clearing Marta), how he gets Fran to the location where she’s supposed to die, and how that’s intended to incriminate Marta when she arrives unless the cops are also alerted to show up (at roughly the same time?).⇐   Those elements bother me a bit, not enough to seriously reduce my enjoyment of this fast-paced comic mystery (that is, what the mystery’s supposed to be, after we know how Harlan died).  But maybe I missed some clear explanation others easily caught.

Bottom Line Final Comments: I’m in the majority of those who’ve found Knives Out to be a worthwhile trip to the local cinema; the CCAL’s highly supportive too with 96% positive RT reviews, MC average score of 82% (quite high for them, at least concerning what they and I have both reviewed of 2019 releases).  Audiences are supportive as well; last weekend’s tally from domestic theaters reached $41.4 million ($72.6 million total worldwide), although even that healthy-debut ultimately pales compared to the ongoing-onslaught of Frozen II, scoring a huge $86 million domestically in its second weekend, adding further to its enormous success (noted in the review above), especially for a sequel to an original (Buck and Lee, 2013; review in our January 24, 2014 posting) which came out 6 years ago.  Considering the generally-serious-fare currently dominating the domestic box-office (except for those alternatives such as Frozen II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Marielle Heller], The Addams Family [Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan], although you’ve noticed I haven’t found time to see them yet), if you’re looking for something ultimately light-hearted (except for the suicide and vomiting, but that may well play into the turmoil that often marks family Thanksgiving get-to-gathers or the Black Friday aftermath) with a warmly-embraced, effectively-used cast (especially the Southern-friend-persona created by Daniel Craig, a far cry from his secret-agent-intensity of James Bond [No Time to Die set for 2020]) constantly whirling you into action as these personalities collide, so I highly encourage seeing Knives Out, available in 3,461 domestic theaters (plus many in other markets, given its international success).  While you’re planning a trip to the local megaplex, though, I’ll close with my Musical Metaphor, which I feel has to be Pink Floyd’s “Money” (from their 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon) at watch?v=cpbbuaIA3Ds—with lyrics under the YouTube screen if you’d like to sing along—(even though I’ve used it 6 times already in other reviews, a level of repetition I try to avoid but that’s difficult when a song so perfectly matches the content of the movie).  The Thrombey family (not including Marta, even though they all keep saying—until the will’s read—how they view her as one of them [not the compliment they intend, as Harlan’s the only one she truly feels close to[) certainly epitomizes what this song’s all about: “Money, it’s a hit And don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit […] Money, it’s a crime Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie.”  Some I’m aware of who’ve commented on Knives Out think Marta’s essentially too good of a person to not share some of her new-found-wealth with Harlan’s family, but possibly except for Meg (who seems to show some sympathy for Marta’s situation but then argues her high-rent-private-college-lifestyle’s just too precious to lose, revealing the ultimate satisfactions she covets) I seriously doubt Marta has much reason to defy Harlan’s final intentions that this cluster of leeches needs to stop “riding the gravy train” ( from another Pink Floyd song, "Have a Cigar"), then learn to fend for themselves somehow.

 OK, that’s all (enough you say?) from Two Guys in the Dark this week except to note this concern about fake online reviews; yes, this article’s about comments on products/services where unsuspecting potential customers can easily be seduced by paid/planted b.s. from the sellers, but you never have to worry about such from us because whatever we say we truly mean whether you might agree with us or not as we have no ad revenue nor any perks from film companies or even the low-budget-indie-filmmakers who sometimes contact us for reviews.  You might be careful about what you read on Amazon and Yelp, though, where such inbred-integrity's often not the case.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about Dark Waters: (20:29 interview with director 
Todd Haynes and actor Mark Ruffalo [visual drops out briefly at about 15:39])

Here’s more information about Knives Out: (although there’s not much here except the trailer and a link to the “Official Site” [even though this first link is supposed to be that] which gets you to) (on Google Chrome it takes a long time to do nothing, but it never did much of anything on Safari either for me, so I hope either of these Web browsers might work better for you with this site; however, it was functional for me on Firefox, with an interesting layout, so that seems to be your best bet, even if you have to copy and paste this second URL [if you're even interested in bothering to do this]) (18:52 casual conversations with director Rian Johnson and actors Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Katherine Langford, Michael Shannon, Anna de Armas, Don Johnson, Jaeden Martell [doesn’t really address the movie 
all that much but retains the wacky, unexpected sense of what was on screen])

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.

Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 33,677 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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