Wednesday, May 22, 2024


Granger at the Movies: ‘Knives Out,’ ‘Marriage Story,’ ‘Frozen II’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

In “Knives Out,” when acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead — his throat slit — just after his 85th birthday celebration, it’s thought to be suicide. Image

But everyone in his extended family has a reason for killing him — like Harlan’s resentful son Walt (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and creepy grandson (Jaeden Martell); Harlan’s officious daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and cranky grandson Ransom (Chris Evans); and Harlan’s goofy ‘lifestyle influencer’ widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and college age granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford).

Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the daughter of an illegal immigrant, was the last one to see him alive. And someone hired highly-esteemed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to accompany the local police officer (Lakeith Stanfield) and his deputy (Noah Segan) as he interviews those who were at Harlan’s home that fateful evening.

Adapting the style of Agatha Christie with a touch of Trump-era class-warfare, writer/director Rian Johnson’s star-studded, character-driven plot unfolds like the board game Clue, a bit reminiscent of “Sleuth” and “Murder on the Orient Express.”

While Rian Johnson is perhaps best known for writing and directing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017), his delightful knack for idiosyncratic characters and precise dialogue was evident in “Looper” (2012). Quoting Alfred Hitchcock, Johnson pleads: “Please don’t spoil the ending. It’s the only one we’ve got.”

The casting-against-type is terrific! Speaking with a hammy, Southern-fried accent, Daniel Craig scraps his James Bond persona, while Chris Evans sheds his heroic “Captain America” image for that of an offensive trust-fund slacker.

FYI: For Harlan Thrombey’s ornate estate, Rian Johnson chose the palatial Ames Mansion, built in the early 1900s in Borderland State Park in Easton, Massachusetts. It was the home of artist/women’s right’s activist Blanche and Oakes Ames, a Harvard botany professor/heir to a shovel company.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Knives Out” is a nefariously enjoyable 8, a comedic whodunit that will keep you guessing until the very end.

You know the feeling when you have a very painful scab on your knee and you keep picking at it? That’s what writer/director Noah Baumbach has created in “Marriage Story,” a bitter, corrosive tale about the dissolution of a marriage.

Beginning as ‘cinema verite,’ recalling the 1960s French film movement which featured natural actions and authentic dialogue, it inexplicably then morphs into near-farce and melodic metaphors.

As their story unfolds, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) recall what they adore about each other. She’s fun, playful and a superb dancer. He’s tidy, great with their son and cries at movies. But their marriage is about to dissolve and even a mediator can’t keep their discourse civil.

Charlie’s a dedicated Brooklyn theater director and, for years, Nicole has been his leading lady. But now she’s been offered a TV series, filming in Los Angeles, where her family lives. So Nicole takes their eight year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and moves back to where she grew up, enjoying the proximity to her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister ((Merritt Wever).

After Nicole hires brash, high-powered Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a divorce lawyer, Charlie realizes Nicole’s Los Angeles ‘visit’ is going to become permanent and, if he wants shared custody of Henry, he’ll have to lawyer-up too. Enter Ray Liotta and Alan Alda.

Supposedly, this is based on the emotional baggage of Noah Baumbach’s 2010 contentious divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, but that’s no excuse for the exhausting,seemingly endless bickering between these privileged, affluent protagonists.

What’s admirable are the gutsy, no-holds-barred performances. Scarlett Johansson is devastating as the unfulfilled actress who’s tired of playing a subsidiary, supporting role, while Adam Driver oozes confusion and pain as the reality of their bicoastal dilemma slowly dawns on him.

On the Granger Gauge, “Marriage Story” is an incisive 7. It’s a deep, painful dive into divorce.

In “Frozen II,” Disney’s animated tale of the two devoted sisters continues. Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) is haunted by an ethereal siren song that seems to beckon her into an enchanted forest as supernatural forces rattle her kingdom of Arendelle.

So, accompanied by her spunky younger sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), the snowman Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad), lovelorn Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff) and Sven the reindeer, they venture forth, prompting the new song “Into the Unknown.”

Their journey will lead them into secrets of their mystical past, where — in a river full of memory — they discover they truth about their grandfather’s abuse of indigenous people and the cruelty of colonialism.

Based on a story by Chris Buck, Marc E. Smith, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez — which traces its antecedents to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” — it’s written by Jennifer Lee, who did the first installment, and codirects with Chris Buck, once aging focusing on Anna and Elsa as self-reliant, resilient role-models for young girls.

The songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez don’t have the clout of “Let It Go,” which has become Disney’s all-time biggest song, garnering an Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy. These new songs are just pleasantly melodic with lyrics reflecting emotions that propel the sisters’ quest.

FYI: Singing eerie ‘siren song’ is Norway’s Aurora Aksnes. Although they harmonize beautifully, Idina Menzel and Aurora worked in separate recording studios — a full continent apart.

The artistic animation highlight occurs when Anna tries to run across the ocean, transforming it into shards of ice, descends underwater, and eventually winds up astride a magnificent sea horse.

And, yes, there’s a post-credit sequence, delivering three alternate versions on some of the songs and Olaf’s reiteration of his “water has memory” theme.

On the Granger Gauge, “Frozen II” is a dazzling 7, as the lucrative franchise continues. Image

(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at

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