Knives Out Is An All-Star Murder Mystery Delight in Toronto

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A film festival wouldn’t be a film festival if it didn’t program a generous number of dramas and documentaries confronting the many urgent problems and societal shock waves that roil today’s world. But a wide-ranging film festival should also offer some pure entertainment—and this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is delivering its quota of fun.

I’ve already reported on the raucous Eddie Murphy crowd-pleaser Dolemite Is My Name, and today’s screening schedule brought two more films that are highly diverting. I’m a fan of a very specific movie genre, the all-star murder mystery, whose apex is probably Sidney Lumet’s 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express. Now, Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has written and directed a very clever whodunit in that same spirit, Lionsgate’s Knives Out. The cast is irresistible, headed by Daniel Craig, laying on a thick Southern accent as a celebrated sleuth; Christopher Plummer as a highly successful mystery novelist who is found with his throat slit in the film’s first five minutes; Jamie Lee Curtis as his daughter, a formidable real estate entrepreneur, married to two-timing Don Johnson; daughter Toni Collette, a Paltrow-like lifestyle “influencer”; Michael Shannon as the son who runs dad’s publishing house; Chris Evans as Curtis and Johnson’s entitled jerk of a son; and Ana de Armas as Plummer’s devoted nurse and the fulcrum of much of the intrigue. Johnson’s script is a brilliantly intricate puzzle with plot reveals you won’t see coming; even novelist Harlan Thrombey’s death isn’t quite the murder it seems at first, as seen in flashbacks with the still spry and mischievous octogenarian Plummer. One zany flourish is that de Armas’ Marta is incapable of telling a lie without vomiting; deductive genius Benoit Blanc calls it “regurgative mistruthing.” Clues are planted here and there, but you’ll need a second viewing to truly appreciate how Rian Johnson’s ingenious mystery contraption was assembled. Both the script and the mansion’s menagerie of self-absorbed characters are very funny, and the actors seem to be having a blast. The audience will too.

Also entertaining, but in a much riskier way, is Jojo Rabbit, the new film from wry New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok). This Fox Searchlight release has the kind of concept new parent company Disney never would have signed off on: A bullied ten-year-old boy in Nazi Germany (Roman Griffin Davis) finds solace in his imaginary friend, none other than Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi as a wacky egomaniac). Jojo’s zeal for Der Führer is jolted when he discovers a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in a storage space. Thanks to Elsa, the little Nazi (whose loving mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a resistance fighter) gradually questions all the hateful myths about Jews he’s swallowed.

Some early reviews out of Toronto are calling the film either too flippant and irreverent or too soft and sentimental. Without a doubt Jojo Rabbit has set itself some tonal challenges: There’s nothing funny about the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews, and yet the movie consistently strikes a note of absurdist whimsey. But “absurd” is the operative word here; as in last year’s The Death of Stalin, the object of ridicule is the demented illogic of totalitarianism. There’s also a touch of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel here, though that film was superior in its blend of surreal wit and real-life terror.

To my mind, JoJo Rabbit’s opening newsreel footage of hordes of delirious Nazi youth puts everything that follows in its proper context. And also giving the film much needed gravitas are its performances, particularly those of Johansson and the compelling McKenzie, delivering on the promise she showed in last year’s Leave No Trace.

A few weeks ago, Fox Searchlight acquired another Toronto entry, The Personal History of David Copperfield from Death of Stalin director and “Veep” co-creator Armando Iannucci. Purists may scoff at this very free-form adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel, but it’s a droll and delightful variation on a timeless tale, with plenty of Iannucci’s trademark off-center humor. Iannucci’s boldest choice is his color-blind casting (something frequent live theater-goers have gotten quite accustomed to), starting with Brit-Indian Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel, charming in the title role. Iannucci regular Peter Capaldi is tremendous fun as the slippery Mr. Macawber; Hugh Laurie is a delightfully daffy Mr. Dick; Ben Whishaw has a solid character turn as the unctuous, scheming Uriah Heep; Morfydd Clark is sweetly obtuse as David’s love interest Dora; and Tilda Swinton turns in yet another indelible eccentric as David’s Aunt Betsey. With a cast like this working within Iannucci’s loosey-goosey framework, what’s not to like? The film arrives in theaters in 2020.

More Toronto coverage to come…

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