Daniel Craig ‘steels’ the witty whodunit “Knives Out”

Updated: May 11


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

Members of the Thrombey family gather for the 85th birthday of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a mega-famous mystery writer.


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“KNIVES OUT”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2019; PG-13 for thematic elements, including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)


Best extra: Multi-part making-of documentary








ONE OF the revelations in writer/director Rian Johnson’s (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) fabulously entertaining comic whodunit, “Knives Out,” is Daniel Craig’s against-type performance. As Benoit Blanc, a detective “consultant” with a thick Southern accent and a penchant for deadpan understatement, Craig is always funny — and often hilarious. Introduced by the irritating piano key he periodically strikes, while Police Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) questions members of the unpleasant Thrombey household, Blanc soon takes charge of investigating the grisly suicide (or was it murder?) of the family’s patriarch.


Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an 85-year-old mega-famous mystery writer, is discovered with his throat cut by his housekeeper (Edi Patterson), in his Victorian mansion crammed to the gills with art, oddities, and artifacts. With just about every Thrombey family member a credible suspect, Blanc soon appoints an assistant or a “Watson” to his “Holmes.” Marta Cabrera (Cuban actress Ana de Armas, the holographic muse in “Blade Runner 2049”) was Harlan’s caretaker who, we soon learn, knows more about his death than she wants to tell. Blanc’s reason for asking for Marta’s help is her apparent trustworthiness and honesty, seeing as she compulsively vomits when she tells a lie. This running sight-gag, as well as the Thrombey family members’ inability to remember exactly where she comes from — Ecuador? Brazil? Uruguay? — provide just a few of the steady stream of laughs in “Knives Out.”


Harlan’s survivors are played by a terrific ensemble of movie talent: Jamie Leigh Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, and K Callan, as well as Noah Segan as Lt. Elliott’s trooper partner and a cameo by M. Emmett Walsh. With its sharp-as-tacks screenplay (Oscar-nominated), excellent production values, and deliciously wicked performances, “Knives Out” is perfect entertainment.


(1&2) The next morning at the Victorian mansion outside of Boston, the housekeeper finds Harlan dead with his throat cut. Was it murder or suicide?






VIDEO

Johnson and his go-to cinematographer Steve Yedlin have always shot on 35mm film going back as young filmmakers with the short “The Psychology of Dream Analysis” (2002), and with their indie debut “Brick” (2005). But for “Knives Out” they seriously considered to capturing the drama digitally within the intimate and fuller sized 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Johnson and producer Ray Bergman were fully behind 35mm, but Yedlin had developed a digital algorithm setup for the 3.4K Arri Alexa Mini camera to make it indistinguishable from film stock. The duo actually gave the digital algorithm a test run during a few select scenes for “The Last Jedi,” and Yedlin swears you can’t tell the difference. So, with the cost savings, reliability, and versatility, they made the jump to digital.


The results are strikingly like it was captured on Super 35; known for it’s larger than normal film grain, and given a high contrast look with deep dark blacks. The colors are well saturated, and the skin tones natural depending on the light source – all products of excellent HDR10 and Dolby Vision toning. The Blu-ray imagery is also very good, but slightly colder and brighter with less controlled highlights and shadows.


Overall clarity has plenty of fine detail from costume textures, to decorative walls and everything in-between. The only disappointment is that “Knives Out” wasn’t mastered in 4K. That would’ve pushed the post-production to reference levels and given the 4K a greater difference in resolution between it and the Blu-ray.



(1) A week after the death of Harlan Thrombey, his caregiver Marta Cabrera (Cuban actress Ana de Armas) is still shocked by the news. (2-4) Police authorities decide to reinterview the family members including daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis). The lead investigator is Police Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and joined by detective “consultant” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who was hired by an unnamed party.







AUDIO

The 4K (disc & digital) and Blu-ray are both coded with the expansive eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack for your height, front and rear speakers. The sound effects are clear, and the dialogue intelligible, while the score adds just the right foil for the Agatha Christie-ish scenario - especially with its chilly bass-heavy opening.


EXTRAS

The bonus material is quite generous, with hours of enlightening information to round out viewers’ experience. In addition to a commentary by Johnson, Yedlin, and actor Noah Segan; there’s an in-theater commentary by Johnson; some deleted scenes, with optional commentary; a featurette on how Johnson structured his screenplay; a Q&A with Johnson and the cast at an L.A. screening; a marketing gallery; and a few “Meet the Thrombeys” viral ads.


The eight-chapter making-of documentary comes in at just under two hours and is filled with meaty content. Johnson says he began thinking about the project about 10 years ago and then, coming off of the “Star Wars” blockbuster, he wanted to make something small-scale and “fun.” He wrote it quickly, he says, in six months, and the shooting was completed in just six weeks.


Cast members comment on their immediate attraction to the project and Johnson notes that Craig was the first to sign on. His name “helped get the caliber of the rest” of the actors. Costume designer Jenny Eagan explains her decisions for each character’s look, with Johnson adding he wanted each “to be as distinct as characters on a Clue board, without looking like they were wearing costumes.”


(1) Marta Cabrera was also questioned again. (2&3) Several flashback scenes reveal clues to what happened before and after the birthday party. (4) Marta gives Benoit Blanc and the police detectives a tour of the Thrombey grounds.







Production designer David Crank talks about creating a “murder mystery mansion.” The result was an actual mansion, just outside Boston, combined with the fabulous library of another nearby home, as well as some sets built on stages. Yedlin adds that despite the challenges of shooting inside such a complex structure, “augmenting an idiosyncratic place is still easier than building it.” Johnson says that some of the furniture and art were already there, but the added décor was meant to represent “the inside of Harlan’s mind.” Editor Bob Ducsay calls “Knives Out” a “Swiss watch of a movie,” which was so meticulously planned, there was “not much left on the cutting room floor.”


Composer Nathan Johnson says that he and Rian (the two are cousins) have been “making movies together since we were ten.” They agreed on a “playful orchestral score” for “Knives Out” and were thrilled to be able to record it at Abbey Road Studios in London: “If you’re a music nerd, Abbey Road is like Mecca,” quips Nathan. The icing on the cake was being able to mix the score at Skywalker Sound, where Rian had worked on “Jedi.” “Knives Out,” he says, is “a movie made to give you a good time.” That it is — don’t miss it.


— Peggy Earle


(1&2) Smug grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) shows up early for the reading of his grandfather's will but didn't attend the funeral. His aunt Joni (Toni Collette) says "Okay, people grieve in different ways," with his other aunt Donna (Riki Lindhome) and cousin Meg (Katherine Langford) listening. (3) Ransom reveals another clue to what happened that night. (4) Blanc discovers mud on the carpet near Harlan Thrombey's bedroom.





(1-4) Attorney Alan Stevens (Frank Oz) reads the will and everyone is shocked by the details.




The master crime-solver says, “I suspect foul play … I have eliminated no suspects.”






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