Monthly Archives: November 2019

‘Knives Out’ is a gem (spoiler-free review!)


For Knives Out, no preamble is necessary. If you’re even moderately familiar with this holiday movie slate, then chances are you’re aware of the overwhelming hype Rian Johnson’s whodunnit has received. I’m happy to report it’s just as great as everything you’ve heard. 

Daniel Craig is playing way against type as eccentric detective Benoit Blanc, who’s investigating the Thrombey family after their mystery-novel magnate father Harlan (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study under suspicious circumstances. The Thrombeys are very similar to the Roys from the excellent HBO series Succession, that is to say very rich, very entitled, and very competitive. Standouts are Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, Harlan’s daughter and seemingly his favorite of his direct descendants, and Toni Collette as Joni, a wannabe new-age earth mother type. 

The actual lead of the picture, however, is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera. Marta is Harlan’s longtime household assistant and nurse, and she becomes more and more central to the mystery surrounding his death as the film swerves around multiple red herrings and twists.

What I love so much about Knives Out is that it takes its time, and yet it still feels like it was shot out of a cannon. It’s the type of film that respects its audience enough to pick up on what may seem like obtuse clues, because to hold your hand would be to ruin the fun. There were several moments in the first half where I wondered why the film was spending so much time on certain things, but all of those things ended up being essential to the mystery and themes of the movie. 

The knives truly come out once it’s made abundantly clear how much Harlan held Marta in high esteem. Though they say she’s a part of the family, a line is drawn in the sand around the hallway point of the film between the Thrombeys and Marta. 

Marta and Blanc are forced to work backwards from their separate conclusions, and they eventually discover the truth together. It’s not until Blanc puts all the seemingly disparate pieces together that the movie fully synthesizes into a complete artistic statement. That’s not a criticism, that’s a compliment. I love films that are unpredictable in the sense that the director’s vision isn’t just stated minute one. Again, the film takes its time, but the fun of the ride justifies that.


Craig and de Armas are both brilliant here, de Armas’ grounded performance providing the perfect foil to Craig’s scenery-chewing shenanigans. But even this key pillar of the movie doesn’t fully materialize until the halfway mark. Rian Johnson proves once again how disciplined a screenwriter should be when blending a complex narrative with perhaps even more complex themes.

The overall message is the big thing I don’t want to spoil, and the marketing has done a tremendous job of not revealing it. That message feels so organic and earned here — no lectures, just a great story with a good heart.

See this movie as soon as possible. What a treat!

-George Napper

‘Knives Out’ will be released everywhere in the US on November 27

2hr, 10min; Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material

‘A Hidden Life’ – a thundering act of grace


After three hours of important and operatic filmmaking, A Hidden Life concludes with a George Eliot quote from which the film’s title was derived:

“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

This isn’t a spoiler, because this is the entire ethos and thesis of Terrence Malick’s latest intimate epic. It’s about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler or fight for the Nazis in World War II. 

Franz’s life is hidden — and has been mostly hidden to history since the 1940s — partly because he lived in a remote village of farmers and tradesmen surrounded by vast mountain ranges. It makes for an absolutely stunning visual experience. But the film might feel like one of Malick’s later empty-headed art installations like Song to Song or Knight of Cups were it not for the fact that the subject matter is so much more hefty, and so right for Malick’s trademark style. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-19 at 12.15.30 PM

A devout Catholic, Franz struggles to understand why his friends, family, clergy, and neighbors go along with Hitler’s nationalism and hatred as it starts to seep into his community. Several moments reminded me of interactions I’ve had with Trump supporters, some of whom come off to me as brainwashed and unable to see reason. Malick’s typically jittery camerawork emphasizes the tensions these social interactions often create. The verticality in his and director of photography Jörg Widmer’s style of shooting dialogue scenes gives us a sense of shifting dynamics of power. In one gorgeous shot (there are so many), a group of Nazi officers descends a hill towards Franz, and the camera is in exactly the right spot to make Franz look weak and ineffectual.

But if one were to walk away from this film thinking Franz lived a weak and ineffectual life, that would be to totally misinterpret what is a truly heroic act. Franz and his wife Franziska work diligently on their farm. At least a third of this film is dedicated to depicting the backbreaking labor Franz and Franziska performed every day, both before the rise of Nazi fascism and during its reign in Austria. What struck me about all the farming was that it provided a window into how fascism can take hold in small communities such as these. One essentially has two choices: either to blame helpless outsiders for one’s problems, and thus be able to continue one’s work without threat, or to stand up against the rising tide of hate and face the personal consequences, as Franz does. In this film, neither seems to be an easy choice. This is partly because of how difficult daily life was at the time — the manual labor becomes unimaginable emotional labor once these life-changing stakes are grafted on, and especially after Franz is taken to prison.

The stress of Franz’s choice on his wife and children would be almost too much to bear in one film were it not for how the film explores faith. In some ways, it’s a biblical exegesis, and in other ways, it’s an exegesis and exhumation of one man’s life. He is not perfect and the film is under no illusion that he is. But he does do something unbelievably selfless, even in the face of Nazi officers violently reminding him every day how selfish he is. Their strategy is to ingrain in him a sense of regret for effectively abandoning his family. But Franziska is always on his side. It’s a powerful romance which underlines the religious aspects of the film. If it were just Franz fighting this fight alone, there would be little beauty in the piece. When Franziska is on screen, you immediately understand why the couple worked and fought for each other for so many years. Even without the voice-over narration of letters they sent each other, you can just see the true love they have for each other in every frame.

Cannes/ Wettbewerb/ A HIDDEN LIFE

Of course, this palpable sense of romance is due in large part to the performances of the two leads. August Diehl, with his stern features and uncanny ability to swing swiftly from exuberance to dread and back again, imbues Franz with a total fullness of spirit. He’s a character that could feel purely polemical, but as played by Diehl, his motivations are steadfast and always convincing. Valerie Pachner gives what I think is one of the very best performances of the year as Franziska. The scenes in which she digs into the dirt, taking her anger out on the earth that is her business partner, are exactly what people mean when they talk about the power of cinema. Untethered and disillusioned, there are no words to express her anguish. The ‘homeland’ the Nazis talk of is worthless to her; her real home is her farm, which for her is still unclaimed territory. There can be no invasion of the soul.

A Hidden Life is undoubtedly one of the most stunning film experiences of this or any year. I’m so happy that Malick still knows how to make powerful, challenging, undeniably beautiful works of art. It’s a welcome return to form. More than that, it’s a call to true faith and love, which does and will always triumph over hate.

-George Napper

‘A Hidden Life’ will be released nationwide in the US on December 13

2hr, 53min; Rated PG-13 for thematic material including violent images

‘Waves’ will rock your soul

When ‘Waves’ opens on a teenager riding a bike, we never imagine that two hours later, that could be an act of redemption. But that’s exactly what it is. More than catharsis, ‘Waves’ offers as close to a spiritual experience as cinema can provide. There is no other way to put it – ‘Waves’ will rock your soul.


31-year-old writer/director Trey Edward Shults has been mining family drama for different kinds of catharsis for a few years now. ‘Krisha’, his debut feature, follows an autobiographical relative struggling to fit in at a Thanksgiving gathering. When I say ‘struggling’, I really mean it. ‘Krisha’ is like an hour-and-a-half version of the first half of ‘Waves’. It’s tense to the point of maddening dizziness. 

‘Waves’ tells the story of the Williamses, a middle-class African-American family in South Florida. If you’ve seen ‘Krisha’, it’s hard not to have flashbacks when you realize the Williams’ house at least looks eerily similar to the one used in the earlier film. I’m 99% sure it was the same house, but I’ve never heard it confirmed.

Regardless, we first learn about Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the high-school senior and wrestler. In his tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), he slowly descends from being a partier to something much, much more tragic. 

In the second half, we follow Emily (Taylor Russell) as she deals with the aftermath of her older brother’s decisions and finds romance with Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s former teammates. 

Throughout both halves, father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and stepmother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) struggle to see themselves and their children clearly again.


What’s so resonant and impressive about ‘Waves’ is that it never once points a finger at anyone. When certain characters point the finger at themselves, it may be hard to disagree with their assessment. But by being able to so closely capture the psyche of both teens, Shults systematically shows how tragedy can befall even the best and most well-intentioned of parents. We are snowballing downward with Tyler, watching a train wreck we have no chance of stopping. We are looking toward the heavens with Emily; seeing the grandeur of life and love almost as if for the first time.

Of course, the bravura performances aid in all of Shults’ efforts. Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Taylor Russell all give Oscar-worthy performances here. It’s such an ensemble piece that I worry about its awards chances in that regard, but no acting I’ve seen this year tops the moment late in the film where Emily and her father reconnect on a park bench. Bring. The. Tissues.

Shults’ intimacy of image sings through the piece like a hymn sung with power and conviction. He and director of photography Drew Daniels use subtle distinctions in color, aspect ratio, and camera placement to communicate extremely complicated emotional dynamics — and they make it all look seamless. This is someone who, at 31 years of age, is in full command of cinematic language and form. ‘Waves’ is a perfectly paced layer cake of a film. It has the flavor and presentation of a master chef. I look forward to whatever Mr. Shults will serve us in the future. 


-George Napper

‘Waves’ opens everywhere in the US on November 15th

2 hr 15 min; Rated R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence – all involving teens