Rian Johnson's "Knives Out" unravels not just a good old-fashioned murder mystery but the very fabric of the whodunit, pulling at loose threads until it has intricately, devilishly woven together something new and exceedingly delightful.
For all the detective tales that dot television screens, the Agatha Christie-styled whodunit has gone curiously absent from movie theaters. The nostalgia-driven "Murder on Orient Express" (2017), popular as it was, didn't do much to dispel the idea that the genre has essentially moved into retirement, content to sit out its days in a warm puffy armchair, occasionally dusting itself off for a remake.
But Johnson has since his 2005 neo-noir debut "Brick" shown a rare cunning for enlivening old genres with densely plotted deconstruction. He makes very clever movies ("Looper," "Star Wars: The Last Jedi") that sometimes, like in the madcap caper "The Brothers Bloom," verge on showy overelaboration, of being too much.
But in the whodunit, too much is usually a good thing. Give us all the movie stars, plot twists and murder weapons you can find. When done well, there is almost nothing better. And "Knives Out," while it takes a little while to find its stride, sticks the landing, right up to its doozy of a last shot. The whodunit turns out not only to still have a few moves left but to be downright acrobatic.
The film begins like many before it: with a dead body that needs accounting for. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling mystery writer, is found with his throat cut in a small upstairs room in his sprawling Victorian mansion. Production designer David Crank deserves much credit for the film's fabulously ornate and much-paneled setting — a Clue board come to life and a home that could rival the modernist abode of "Parasite" for movie house of the year.
Thrombey is extremely wealthy with an expansive family of spoon-fed, entitled eccentrics that would likely mix well with the dynasty of HBO's "Succession." And as much intrigue as there is about Harlan's death, for his children there's even more about his inheritance. There's his relator daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her cheating husband Richard (Don Johnson), a vocal Trump supporter; his son Walt (a sweater-wearing Michael Shannon) who runs his father's publishing house and is married to Joni (Toni Collette); and his grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), the arrogant black sheep of the family.
There are others, too, most notably Harlan's trusted caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas). The Thrombeys casually refer to her as "the help" and, in a running gag, are all over the map when it comes to her native South American country. A deeper political dimension slowly takes shape as the family's cavalier indifference to Marta plays a role in the movie's unspooling mysteries. Juggling themes of class privilege, immigration and ethnocentricity, "Knives Out" is a whodunit for the Trump era.
Some mysteries first submerge themselves in set-up, the crime in question and the entrance of its central detective. Johnson is too restless for such an approach. He favors flashbacks, by the boat load, to go along with elaborate plot mechanics of reversals and perspective switcheroos. That gives "Knives Out" a somewhat clunky and imperfectly paced first act, something Johnson makes up for with the payoff of his finale. But for a movie with so many fine actors having so much fun, we get surprisingly little of the Thrombeys as a whole.
Instead, our detective calls almost immediately. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a flamboyant Louisiana investigator of such renown that he's already been profiled in the New Yorker as "the last of the gentleman sleuths." Even with such immaculate set dressing all around him (the mystery writer's house is decorated throughout with murder weapons, including a throne of knives), Craig still manages to chew plenty of scenery with his heavily accented Southern-style Poirot. One calls him "Foghorn Leghorn," another "CSI: KFC." He's accompanied by another detective (an underused Lakeith Stanfield) but he quickly makes Marta his sidekick; she has a useful aversion to lies, throwing up every time she tells one.
There isn't much that isn't knowing in Johnson's dialogue. He delights in playing by the genre's rules and remaking them at once. There are winking references here to "Hamilton" and "Baby Driver," and "Knives Out" more than once risks being overwhelmed by self-satisfaction.
But "Knives Out," in the end, believes earnestly in the whodunit, it just wants to turn it inside out. To say more about that would spoil the fun. But keep an eye here, and elsewhere, on de Armas. The "Blade Runner 2049" actress (soon to be seen in the next James Bond film, also with Craig) isn't the biggest star in a film awash with A-listers. But with neither cloak nor dagger, she seizes "Knives Out." It's hers.
"Knives Out," a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language. Running time: 126 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Moroccan rapper Gnawi knew the police would come, after he and two friends released a unusually outspoken video exposing their country's problems with migration and drugs and expressing frustration with the king.
And sure enough, they did.
Gnawi, a former military serviceman whose real name is Mohamed Mounir, goes on trial Monday in a case that his supporters see as a backlash against expressions of growing public anger at authorities and lack of economic opportunity.
Moroccan authorities say the arrest was prompted by an earlier video in which Gnawi insults the police, which is a crime punishable with up to two years in prison.
But his supporters think his arrest was punishment for the song "3acha cha3b" (Long Live the People) by Gnawi and rappers Lz3er and Weld L'Griya. Released Oct. 29, it immediately went viral, and now has 15.6 million hits on YouTube.
Full of visual imagery familiar to struggling Moroccans, the five-minute manifesto speaks to the country's disillusioned generation, raging against the powers-that-be and criticizing the country's widening economic gap.
Gnawi was arrested two days after its release. He didn't object, but het handed himself over and marched proudly out of his parents' house. Behind him, bystanders murmured "Long Live the People."
One passage of the song reflects on the Hirak protest movement in Morocco's impoverished Rif mountain region. Another section, on a mother whose sons died attempting to migrate to Europe, pulls at listeners' heartstrings. Another paints a picture of a young generation ruined by hashish and hard drugs.
Most shockingly to many Moroccans, the song also directly criticizes Morocco's king and his adviser, taboo subjects and a criminal offense.
"The song added insult to the injuries of my country. We didn't do this project to point fingers or create controversy. We voiced what the majority of Moroccans feel but fear to say. We said it all and it naturally upset those who do not want change," Lz3er told The Associated Press in an interview.
"All Morocco knows that Gnawi is arrested because of 3ach cha3b song," said the 31-year-old, whose real name is Yahya Semlali.
He said he was followed after the release of the song. Slouched by the door of his studio, a small room on the rooftop of his parents' house in the Moroccan city of Fes, LZ3er waited for the loud boots of police to come stomping in.
He wasn't, but Gnawi was, in what Amnesty International called "an outrageous assault on free speech."
Grounded in the tradition of poetic spoken word rather than American rap culture, Morocco's political rap has its own rhythm and meter. The language's guttural syllables demand fury in delivery, and rap is a welcome outlet for political passions.
"All of us are in the 'see and be quiet' mode. But I do this because I don't want to see and be quiet. That's why people respond to my music," Lz3er said in his house in Fes, a city prized by tourists for its beauty and royal sites. For the locals, Fes is known as Morocco's capital of crime.
Lz3er and Weld L'Griya grew up in that world. Having dropped out of school, their education comes from watching young men like them sleeping in carton boxes in the cold, prostitutes dreaming of working in offices, boys turning to drugs to escape reality.
"We are stuck in a caste system and our rap mirrors exactly that," Lz3er said.
But for government spokesman Hassan Abyaba, the rap song doesn't reflect Morocco's reality.
"Songs of all kinds must respect the citizens, the constancy of the nation and the principles and values that are part of the Moroccans' education," he told a news conference last week.
The Minister of Human Rights, Mustapha Ramid, dubbed the song "provocative and offensive."
Morocco, a kingdom long known for its stability in the Arab world, adopted constitutional reforms in response during the 2011 Arab Spring, aimed at reducing corruption and abuse of power and expanding free speech. Today, Morocco is still struggling with poverty, corruption and unemployment. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in Morocco's constitution, but with limits.
Researcher Zineb Harrouchi says "rappers are the spokespersons of a class of society" but that politically engaged rappers are often arrested for "offenses that have nothing to do with music or their artistic production."
Opposition rapper Mouad Belrhouate, better known as El 7aqed or "the resentful one," has been arrested three times for his music critical of Morocco's social ills and ruling elite.
A political refugee in Belgium since 2015, he told the AP: "Though I love my country very much, it suffocated me. I was always followed, watched. I felt in prison outside of prison, and yet I dream of the day I return to my neighborhood, my little bunker in my neighborhood in Casablanca."
At the poignant memorial service for Diahann Carroll, the Oscar-nominated actress was remembered for all the things that made her famous — her glamour, her sublime talent, her beauty and her elegance.
But with each luminary and loved one who remembered her, what was also underscored was her role as a trailblazer — the barriers she broke as a black entertainer and the doors she opened for so many more to follow.
"She was able to demonstrate what is possible, through hard work and commitment," said friend Laurence Fishburne, one of several who spoke to her legacy on Sunday at the Helen Hayes Theater. "Not just a passion for her art but a deeper yearning, a yearning to create something meaningful, something truthful, something deeply human, and something timeless."
Fishburne was joined by Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Lenny Kravitz, Lynn Whitfield and more who memorialized her on stage; in the audience, those paying tribute included Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams, Judith Jamison, Valerie Simpson and Jasmine Guy, who played her TV daughter in the TV series "A Different World."
Carroll died on Oct. 4 at the age of 84 after a bout with breast cancer. Her career spanned the decades, and she logged several "firsts" as a black actress, including the first to star as a non-servant in her own television show with the series "Julia," in which she played a widowed nurse raising a young son. It ran from 1968 to 1973.
She was also one of the handful of black women to be nominated for best actress at the Academy Awards for her role as a struggling single mother on government assistance who finds love with a sanitation worker in the 1974 movie "Claudine."
Her other roles included the fierce and fabulous Dominique Devereaux on the 1980s soap opera "Dynasty," one of three sisters in the TV drama movie "Sister, Sister" and as the voodoo priestess in the movie "Eve's Bayou."
It was on that film where she and Whitfield worked together, but Whitfield remembered seeing Carroll decades earlier on stage when she was a girl —"my awestruck introduction to the stunning woman. Everything about her said, 'It can be done.'"
She wasn't the only one who wanted to follow in her glamorous footsteps. Dionne Warwick, who sent in an audio tribute, recalls the first time she saw Carroll perform; she spent the concert writing down notes.
"I wanted to be the same thing she was," Warwick recalled. "I was in class basically."
Warwick, who fondly recalled Carroll dubbing her "little girl," also remembered being chastised by Carroll one day when she went to the grocery store early in the morning, barefaced.
"Here's this most glamorous woman … and she wanted to know what I was doing … in the grocery store without makeup," she said, to the laughter of the crowd.
Kravitz, who lovingly remembered her as Aunt D, recalled growing up with Carroll in his house, hanging out with his actress mother, the late Roxie Roker, and other black celebrities at the time. What he didn't realize until later was "the impact they were having on our culture and our history."
"These were hardworking, disciplined artists, the best of the best, who had to deal with immeasurable obstacles," he said. "Diahann Carroll was a pioneer who forever changed the status quo, especially for women of color. The vision she had for herself set a precedent that still holds today. She saw the future, and it began then."
Tyson recalled a decadeslong friendship, and recalled her "incredible" sense of humor that was unexpected to some: "Did that come from the elegant, swellegant, Diahann Carroll? Yes it did," Tyson recalled.
Tyson went to see Carroll in her final days, and was shaken by how the star could barely talk, but said she was grateful she got to say her goodbye.
"I don't know what I would have done had I learned she had passed on if I had neglected to go she her. I consider that a special blessing," she said.
Tyson was one of several who read poems in her honor, including Angela Bassett, who performed "When the Great Trees Fall."
There were also musical performances, including "A Sleepin' Bee," performed by Tony-nominated actress Denee Benton, which Carroll herself performed in the 1954 show "House of Flowers." Dianne Reeves later performed "Black Bird," by Paul McCartney, which Carroll's daughter Suzanne Kay discovered was what her mother wanted played at her memorial service.
Kay said the song was fitting because Paul McCartney wrote it in tribute to black women during the civil rights movement.
When Kay went through her mother's belongings after the entertainer's death last month, she found a piece of paper with her mother's handwriting on it that read: "The world is better because of me, an American black woman, and most assuredly because I am woman."
"Some people might think that's arrogance," Kay said. "I don't think so. I think she always understood her value, our value, and she carried that with her, and I think that's why we all are here, that's why people loved her," Kay said.
Jessye Norman was remembered as a force of nature as thousands filled the Metropolitan Opera House on Sunday for a celebration of the soprano, who died Sept. 30 at age 74.
Sopranos Renée Fleming, Latonia Moore, Lise Davidsen and Leah Hawkins sang tributes along with mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges and bass-baritone Eric Owens that were mixed among remembrances of family and friends, dance performances of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and video of Norman's career.
"Yankee Stadium is the house that Babe Ruth built and welcome to this house that Jessye Norman built," Met general manager Peter Gelb said. "Of course Jessye wasn't alone in filling this hallowed hall with her glorious voice. She was joined by rather important voices, from Leontyne Price to Luciano Pavarotti, but in her operatic prime in the '80s and the 90s, her majestic vocal chords reigned supreme in the dramatic soprano and the mezzo range. Like Babe Ruth, who swung for the fences, Jessye swung for standing room in the family circle, and she always connected."
Norman's celebration took place shortly after a memorial to actress Diahann Carroll at the Helen Hayes Theater, about a mile south. On Thursday, author Toni Morrison was memorialized at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, a trio of black Americans who were leaders in their fields.
"Three monumental women who carried through and offered a bounty of gifts to the world," actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith said.
Smith recalled signing letters "Little Sis" to Norman's "Big Sis." She remembered traveling to Norman's performances around the world, focusing on one at the Festival de Musique de Menton on the French Riviera, near the Italian border. Organizers had arranged to stop traffic to clear the air for Norman but fretted over a train, asking whether Norman preferred they slow it down to lower the noise level in exchange for a lengthier time the noise would be audible.
"When the train came through Menton and Jessye was hitting the high note, I heard Jessye. She sang through it," Smith said. "Until this morning, this very morning, I thought Jessye's voice simply overrode that train. I don't think so anymore. Now I understand that Jessye Norman had the ear, the timing, the love of song, the risk to share and the will to sing through — and with — the roaring train. In the same way, she integrated several musical histories to grace the world with the power of her voice."
Speakers included Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and Gloria Steinem.
Younger sister Elaine Norman Sturkey and brother James Howard Norman told stories of their youth in Augusta, Georgia, and later travels together.
"Travel with Jessye was no small feat," Norman Sturkey said with humor in her voice. "These Louis Vuittons that she bought were so heavy before you could even put anything in them. Then she would pack them to capacity, so that when we got to the airport, they were all going to be too heavy. We're not going to have two maybe big suitcases or even three, we were going to have 10. And she's not lifting anything. That's somebody else's problem. And she's carrying everything from a humidifier to a teapot. And we're going to be back in less than two weeks, sometimes a week."
Carnegie Hall executive director Clive Gillinson spoke of summoning the courage to ask Norman to curate a festival, which she readily agreed to and became "Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy" in March 2009.
"Clive, this is the project I've been waiting my entire life to do," he quoted her as responding.
Former French Culture Minister spoke of the controversy over his decision to hire Norman rather than a French singer to perform "La Marseillaise" at the Place de la Concorde in 1989 to mark the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. His remembrance was followed by a video of Norman's iconic, blazing rendition.
Fleming received a huge ovation after "Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep)" from Strauss' "Four Last Songs," accompanied by pianist Gerald Martin Moore and Met concertmaster David Chan. Hawkins and Moore began and ended the program with traditionals, "Great Day" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand." Bridges sang Duke Ellington's "Heaven" and Owen performed Wotan's farewell from "Die Walkuere." Davidson, who is to make her Met debut Friday, sang Strauss' "Morgen!"
Taylor Swift has won artist of the year at the American Music Awards and surpassed Michael Jackson as the ceremony's most-honored performer.
Swift tied Jackson's 24 awards when she won favorite pop/rock album during the broadcast and then moonwalked past him with the night's top prize. It was the singer-songwriter's night practically from start to finish as she performed a medley of her hits before accepting the artist of the decade award.
Swift, wearing a flowing pink and gold cape, hugged Post Malone, who was also nominated for artist of the year, on her way to the stage. She said the last year had "the most amazing times and some of the hardest things I have gone through in my life," but that she felt lucky.
She later popped up on stage with Shania Twain after Twain ended the show with a medley of her hits, including "Man! I Feel Like A Woman."
Taylor Swift has gotten her chance to sing her old hits, a point of controversy leading up to the American Music Awards.
The singer-songwriter, who is locked in a public feud over ownership of her early hits, was supported by her parents in the audience, her fellow artists Halsey and Camilla Cabello who joined her on stage and songwriting legend Carole King, who presented Swift the artist of the decade honor.
King noted that for Swift "the best was yet to come."
Swift started her performance in white button-up shirt printed with the names of her past records, which are now owned by the owner of her former record label and manager Scooter Braun, a man who Swift has been publicly feuding with. She shed the shirt after singing a few lines from "If I Was a Man," to don a sparkling gold one piece for a long medley of several of her hit pop songs, including "Shake It Off" and "Blank Space."
Swift said all artists want to "create something that will last" and the award celebrated a decade of hard work and art and memories. She ended by saying, "I'm so lucky to get to do this."
Earlier in the night, Swift tied Michael Jackson's record for most AMA Awards, and still has a chance to top it later in Sunday's show.
— Kristin M. Hall (@kmhall on Twitter)
Grammy-nominee Lizzo — perhaps the most memeable artist of the year — has become the talk of the American Music Awards with her red carpet look that included a minuscule Valentino purse that could hold a single breath mint.
Dressed in a ruffled peach custom Valentino mini dress, the "Truth Hurts" singer said on the carpet on Sunday that there were only three in the world. Nominated for new artist of the year, she performed her kiss-off song "Jerome" during the awards show as fans lit up the theater.
Her tiny purse became a running joke on Twitter, with some users joking about what it could hold (their patience, hopes for 2020) and what it couldn't hold: the number of AMA trophies fans hoped Lizzo would win.
— Kristin M. Hall (@kmhall on Twitter)
Selena Gomez has opened the American Music Awards with a colorful performance of two new songs "Lose You To Love Me" and "Look At Her Now," backed by a group of dancers.
Gomez hasn't released a new album since 2015's "Revival," but dropped these two songs ahead of the awards show performance on Sunday, which is airing live on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Taylor Swift and Halsey were shown on camera dancing and singing along in the audience.
The show was hosted by Ciara, who entered the stage from a gold hoop dropped down from the ceiling and sang her song "Melanin."
All eyes will be on Taylor Swift at the 2019 American Music Awards.
The pop star, who has continued to publicly battle with the men who own her master recordings, is set to take the stage at Sunday's show — a performance she recently said was put in jeopardy by Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun. Swift could also make history at the AMAs if she surpasses Michael Jackson's record for most wins.
Swift, who has won 23 AMAs, is nominated for five awards and could best the King of Pop's 24 wins. She will also receive the artist of the decade award, to be presented by Carole King, at the show, which airs live on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT.
Other performers include Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Post Malone and Selena Gomez.