MOVIE REVIEW: Inventive directors spin lively crime dramas

By now, most are aware that some local movie theaters are closing up once again in response to the lack of patrons. Major studios are backing off release dates in hopes that the pandemic slowly will dissipate and make going “out” to the movies a more common pastime.

Until it becomes the norm again, we’ll return to at-home selections, so we still can enjoy a movie night. Last week, we looked at a couple classic Halloween-season films; this time, we go in the same general direction, steering toward crime dramas but in a more modern vein.

“Knives Out” (2019)

While Rian Johnson caught a little flack for “The Last Jedi” (which wasn’t a bad film, mind you), he certainly rights the ship with his highly entertaining whodunit released a little less than a year ago.

When eccentric novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his home, in comes Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to solve the crime. He listens to the recap of events told by Thrombey's family (a motley crew of self-absorbed leeches), as well as to his docile nurse who has a unique response when lying.

Obviously, the situation is more complex than he has been led to believe, because the stories have more holes in them than a box of doughnuts “within a doughnut.” Each member of the family has motive and opportunity, though Johnson (who also wrote the film) reveals who did it at about the midpoint of the movie. He isn’t concerned with who did it, he is more concerned about what happens after the family patriarch is gone. It is what makes the film so entertaining and fun.

The ensemble cast is dazzling to say the least. Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson are Harlan's daughter and son-in-law; Toni Collette is the youngest daughter; and Michael Shannon is the eldest son. Chris (Captain America) Evans is Ransom, the only son to Curtis and Johnson, but the whole film is held together by Ana de Armas, Thrombey’s nurse, Marta.

Lines are delivered so naturally, the bickering is believable, and the true colors that come out during the interactions give each character a roundness normally difficult to obtain in a 130-minute run time.

Johnson twists time eloquently (the flashback sequences are a work of art), and his camera placement makes shots so deliberate that you can’t help but be drawn in. Even though we know who did it, the engaging story baits viewers into thinking there is more to be had – which there is. When Blanc (Craig is hysterically funny by the way) finally makes the big reveal, the movie closes with one of the best ending shots of the last few years.

The PG-13 rating is accurate, and the film is on Prime.

“The Gentlemen” (2020)

Director Guy Ritchie treats viewers to a crime film that uses a lot of tricks. Filled with more twists and turns than a Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair, the film is quick-witted and intelligent, yet not for the faint of heart.

In what appears to be the simple liquidation of a business, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) finds himself with really only one buyer (make that one buyer he wants to sell to) for perhaps the largest marijuana operation in England. Sure, the concept is straightforward, but in true Ritchie style, the storytelling and visuals will grab viewers and keep them guessing through the almost two-hour run time.

Taking a page right out of famed director Billy Wilder’s textbook, "The Gentlemen" begins with a scene chronologically about three quarters of the way through the film, then wraps back around on itself, a la "Double Indemnity" (referenced in the story). But Ritchie doesn’t stop there – setting it up as a classic Hollywood movie, both figuratively and literally. We then are treated to semi-narrator Fletcher (played brilliantly by the always reliable Hugh Grant) trying to collect some coin from Pearson’s right-hand man, Ray (Charlie Hunnam).

As Fletcher lays out the information that will reveal the interworking of the illegal operation, we have effective cuts and drop-ins of interactions between Pearson and the people who work for him, alongside him and against him, as well as those who love him. Ritchie’s technique of bending time and providing alternate interpretations of a scene works well within this film, entertaining the audience with constant shots of adrenaline.

Much like Rian Johnson's aforementioned "Knives Out," the story of "The Gentlemen" rolls back and forth between characters’ points of view, making one wonder what will happen next. Ritchie wrote an intriguing story about a drug lord who wants to retire. Of course, the acting is stellar – McConaughey and Hunnam are at the top of their game, pacing scenes with the temperament of volcanoes waiting for the right moment to erupt. The versatile Colin Farrell gets a chance to use his original Irish brogue in one of the most fun characters so far this year, and steals every scene he is in. Michelle Dockery of "Downton Abbey" plays Pearson’s wife and, though not on screen all that much, is strong, capable and likable.

Unlike "Knives Out" though, here violence is much more prevalent and the language is much stronger. There are a couple laugh-out-loud moments, some great references to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and an ending providing a sense of satisfaction. The film is rated R and is on Showtime.

Both pseudo-crime dramas spin tight, entertaining stories that will keep you on the edge of your seat, laughing and enjoying the way two talented directors present them.

• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor at McHenry County College. He looks forward to resuming the role of host for the Second Monday Film Series at Classic Cinemas in Woodstock.

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