Friday, November 29, 2019

Not one turkey in the bunch: 'Knives Out,' 'Queen & Slim,' 'Honey Boy'

Among a trio of Thanksgiving offerings in theaters today, Rian Johnson's "Knives Out" is certainly the most entertaining, if not simply the overused "best." In fact, the comic mystery consistently belies an old critics' saw that claims the more big names there are in a major movie, the worse it gets.

Not so here, though, with Daniel "James Bond" Craig and Chris "Captain America" Evans popping up along the way and actually enjoying some fun give-and-take with the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette and Don Johnson, to name a more familiar few.

Craig plays a not-so smooth-talking, Agatha Christie-inspired sleuth, who enters out of nowhere; Frank "Yoda" Oz adds some deadpan humor as a distressed lawyer; and the rest, including Evans, as the black-sheep grandson-- named Ransom, no less -- are greedy members of a wealthy clan headed by patriarch Harlan Thrombey (the great Christopher Plummer).

Alas, the latter, himself an extremely successful detective novelist, leaves very early. You see, his apparent suicide serves as the device for everyone to show up at a family compound large enough for nooks, crannies and spaces worthy of a virtual "Clue" game. That's certainly what writer/director Johnson, coming off helming 2017's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," puts up on the big screen, with a wink, wink here and an appropriately satirical musical cue there.

Subtly adding some social commentary are Ana de Armas ("Blade Runner 2049"), as Harlan's foreign-born nurse, who's own odd condition makes her incapable of telling a lie, and Lakeith Stanfield ("Sorry to Bother You"), as a serious cop still delivering a terrific punch line after a requisite car chase. It all makes for an absolute holiday hoot.

Rated "PG-13": thematic elements, brief language, some strong language, sexual references and drug material; 2:10; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Turner-Smith and Kaluuya turn folk heroes as "Queen & Slim."
Except for a grill-mouthed player down the stretch, "Queen & Slim" does not produce many outrageous laughs. Instead, a racially motivated cop killing initiates a road trip which, in turn, grows into a heartfelt love story being promoted as another "Bonnie and Clyde."

Don't believe it, though. This often startling tale from director Melina Mastoukas (still likely most famous for her Beyonce videos) and screenwriter Lena Waithe ("Master of None") can stand on its own, rough edges and all.

As based on an original story by James Frey, a former Clevelander, it all begins there (on the inner city corner of East 69th Street and St. Clair Avenue to be exact), where the first date between the title characters (model-turned on-fire actress Jodie Turner-Smith and Oscar-nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya) is headed nowhere but home.

Then, a cruel fate intervenes in the form of a racist cop (singer Sturgill Simpson), who bullies the pair enough to instigate his own shooting death. Naturally, it all gets stickier from there after so-called Queen, a no-nonsense lawyer, pushes nice-guy Slim into going on the lam.

Getting to New Orleans from the North Coast somehow turns into just a very crowded one-day excursion, and that's where her reluctantly helpful Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) lives with a trio of working girls.

By then, the couple on the run have become folk heroes in a nation of divide, with their travels accompanied by a smartly soulful soundtrack and even some nicely symbolic conversations. It's not truly a sentimental journey, but some might call it an unforgettable one, especially considering all that goes down.

By the way, the film's opening moments were shot last January on Cleveland's coldest nights of the year in temperatures filled with close to minus-20-degree wind chills. Regardless, Kaluuya, the "Get Out" hero, apparently liked our fair town so much he's back here now shooting a film about slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

Rated "R": violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use; 2:12; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Also worth a long look this weekend is "Honey Boy," a film written by and starring Shia LaBeouf as his own father, a rodeo clown who's paternal instincts became a mixed bag of shaky shelter, tough love, and using cigarettes as a kind of Pavlovian-like reward for his son.

Rupe and LaBeouf carry the occasionally rough "Honey Boy."
At least, that's the way LeBeouf's often compelling story tells it. Please know, however, that the actor/writer has been known to tell a fib or two in his still young and extraordinarily eventful life.

With actual family monikers changed, perhaps to protect the guilty, Lucas Hedges opens the movie as a twenty something actor named Otis, headlining action flicks, using an assortment of drugs to get by, and eventually finding a rehab unit that works for him. Maybe that's because a doctor there has diagnosed the actor's struggles to be linked to PTSD, even though he's never been to war. (Side note: The busy LaBeouf did play an ex-soldier with that disorder in Dito Montiel's little-seen "Man Down.")

Anyway, the strength of "Honey Boy" lies in flashbacks showing why Otis turned out the way he did. That would be from the childhood trauma, of course, set in motion by such an erratic dad, with LaBeouf sizzling in a demanding performance. Meanwhile, Noah Rupe, the young actor who has been so good in such films as "A Quiet Place," "Wonder," and the current "Ford v Ferrari," remains such a force of nature that audiences will want to embrace the kid with a huge hug when all is said and done.

Rated "R": pervasive strong language, some sexual material and drug use; 1:35; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

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