Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019)

On his 85th birthday, mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey invites his family to his mansion in the state of Massachusetts. Things take a turn for the worse when the wealthy novelist is found dead with his throat slit. The police believe it to have been suicide, but in order to get to the bottom of things, an anonymous person hires a private eye by the name of Benoit Blanc to investigate. As the mystery unfolds, a picture will be painted of a dysfunctional family, and in the middle of this strife stands a nurse named Marta Cabrera.

After the 2017 release of The Last Jedi, the eighth numbered Star Wars installment, Director Rian Johnson became a controversial figure. He had always believed in subverting audience expectations as early as the episodes he directed for the hit HBO show Breaking Bad. As such, his fans considered him one of the greatest writer-directors to emerge in the 2010s. Detractors, on the other hand, saw him as nothing more than a pretentious hack with delusions of grandeur, which were exacerbated by his sophomoric outbursts on social media. It was through his tendency to constantly pull the rug out from under his audience that “subverting expectations” became shorthand in certain circles for whenever an author goes completely off the rails.

With this context in mind, I actually have to say that making his follow-up to The Last Jedi a murder mystery film was a smart move. After all, if people are criticizing you for your misbegotten attempts to subvert audience expectations, what would be the best move? Delve into a genre where constant subversions are not only commonplace, but outright expected. After all, a murder mystery plot with no twists whatsoever is like crafting a science-fiction piece with no science whatsoever.

And I will say that superficially, Mr. Johnson succeeded in his goal. While the film does sell itself as a typical whodunnit plot, this is quickly tossed aside by handing the audience a painstakingly obvious culprit: Marta Cabrera. The nurse inadvertently administered a lethal amount of morphine into Harlan’s bloodstream. Unable to find the antidote, Harlan only had minutes to live. Marta’s mother is an undocumented immigrant. Harlan, sympathetic to their plight, prevented Marta from calling for help, gave her instructions for a false alibi to save her family, and slit his own throat.

What follows is a suspenseful second act that brings to mind The Fugitive in how the protagonist must evade an antagonistic private eye determined to get to the bottom of things – the key difference being that the audience is led to believe Marta is guilty of the central crime. Hugh Ransom Drysdale, disillusioned with his family, forces Marta to confess to her crime. As Marta turns out to be the sole inheritor of Harlan’s fortune, he asks for a portion in exchange for his services.

The best part about Knives Out is that it leads its audience to assume that the mystery has already been solved before eventually taking a step back and revealing it never ended at all. Marta eventually receives an email from an anonymous blackmailer, who eventually demands she meets them personally. At the rendezvous point, Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper, appears to yell “You did this!” before slipping into unconsciousness. Marta is quickly apprehended by Blanc, whereupon she confesses to her crime.

When the major players meet back at the mansion, Blanc makes a series of deductions based on everything he has seen. Marta did not, in fact, kill Harlan. Ransom had swapped the contents of Harlan’s medication to get her to kill her boss. As per the slayer rule, Marta would not gain the inheritance if she were found guilty of Harlan’s murder. However, Marta actually administered the correct dosage of morphine. Through muscle memory, she recognized the viscosity of the medicines and foiled Ransom’s plan. It was only after she read the labels that she suspected she may have committed an error. Ransom hired Blanc in order to expose Marta, but Fran observed his tampering, so he had to make her disappear. He overdosed Fran with morphine, intending Marta to take the blame for Fran’s murder. He also made sure to burn the medical examiner’s office down, which would provide evidence of Marta’s innocence.

In the end, Marta, receiving a call from the hospital, informs Ransom that Fran will survive. A smug Ransom basks in his victory before it is revealed that Marta tricked him. Fran is dead, and Blanc has all the evidence he needs to convict him of the crime. Furious, Ransom tries to take Marta down with him, but attacks her with a retractable stage knife, therefore only succeeding in adding an attempted murder charge to his list of transgressions. He is soon carted off to prison and Marta watches the Thrombeys from the balcony of her new mansion.

So, with Rian Johnson choosing a genre that thrives off of subverting expectations and pulling twist after twist in the final act, he must have created a true classic, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Although I think the twists in Knives Out feel far more naturalistic than those of The Last Jedi, it is easy to tell that both films were written and directed by the same person.

Mr. Johnson’s defining flaw as a writer was that whenever he came up with an interesting idea, he tended to discard it once it served its stylistic purposes, not bothering to explore its underlying implications or take things to their logical conclusions. This could be seen as early as Looper, which featured a character who outright told the protagonist – and by proxy, the audience – not to think about the film’s central time-travel premise too hard, but it was even more obvious in The Last Jedi. You would get these scenes that looked incredible in the moment but either had no buildup or directly contradicted the series’ canon.

In the end, it was easy to get the impression that Mr. Johnson discouraged audiences from thinking too hard about his work because doing so would completely destroy his script’s integrity. Sadly, that continues to be the case with Knives Out. There was no reason for Harlan to sacrifice himself to save Marta. Six minutes had passed between the time Marta administered the morphine and when she discovered the missing labels. A morphine overdose leaves its victim unintelligible, so if Harlan is still capable of talking six minutes after the fact, he is perfectly fine. From there, they could have called the police, allowing them to discover Ransom’s tampering without Harlan or Fran needing to die.

While this may seem to serve a dramatic purpose, it does ruin the suspension of disbelief regarding Marta somewhat. A nurse should know the effects of morphine, so it is strange that she would go along with Harlan’s convoluted plan. It’s easy to mount the defense that she was in a panic, but if she performs so poorly under pressure, one wonders how she managed to get her license in the first place.

Fran’s arc manages to be its own can of worms. Knowing that Ransom is up to no good, she attempts to blackmail him only to get murdered for her efforts. She thought it would be a great idea to meet someone she knew was capable of murder in a dark, secluded room with no witnesses. She is shown to have a secret stash of marijuana, but nothing else in the narrative suggests she is this foolhardy. That she is a fan of Hallmark murder mysteries might have given her a false impression about how these stories pan out, but such a conclusion is far too large of a leap in logic for anyone not named Rian Johnson to make.

Indeed, what really sinks the film is that it operates on a very passive premise. What I mean is that certain elements are in place in order for the story to maintain its integrity and not because of any reason based in diegesis. Marta vomits every time she lies. This does result in a spectacular payoff when she reveals Fran’s fate, but it otherwise comes across as unnecessary – a subtler tell would have sufficed. Ransom’s first name being Hugh is solely to resemble the word “you”. That way, when Fran yells “Hugh did this!” at Marta, it sounds like an accusatory “You did this!” To put things in perspective, one of the Ace Attorney games featured a similar extrapolation – even involving a character with the same exact given name. One difference – the line of thinking in that game turned out to be a red herring. In other words, something that is rightly considered contrived in one story is suddenly perfectly serviceable in this one. While her mind was addled, if Fran yelled “Ransom did this!” or something similar, the plot would have been shattered into a million pieces. Then, of course, there’s the fact that she isn’t shown to be unintelligent yet has to make a spectacular blunder in order for her to end up as the real murder victim. I say it’s passive because it feels as though Mr. Johnson hardcoded the plot points into his narrative and forced himself to write around them – even as they were demonstrably proven to be unworkable.

Not helping matters is that Knives Out shares a key weakness with The Last Jedi. The eighth episode of Star Wars was intended to be a progressive, liberal piece, yet it had a very real undercurrent of chauvinism to it. It was especially sharp in how its protagonist inexplicably fell for a bad boy, but through another character, the narrative implored its audience to blindly submit to authority figures. Knives Out follows this example in how it handles Marta herself. Although the film was praised, certain critics drew umbrage in how it leaned into the “good immigrant” myth. The reasoning was that her rich, white employers bequeaths to her his entire fortune. This implies that immigrants deserve rights because they work hard, and not because they’re human. Just like in The Last Jedi, Mr. Johnson clearly wants to be progressive, but his was a perspective that lacked the context required to do a story such as Marta’s justice.

Otherwise, what I find to be the worst aspect of the film lies in its cast. While Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Benoit Blanc is gloriously hammy and Ana de Armas is very charming as Marta, everyone else is either forgettable or memorable for the wrong reasons. The Thrombeys in particular receive very little in the way of characterization. Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw of Zero Punctuation fame claimed that the cheater’s guide to characterization involves giving each cast member one exaggerated trait and referring to it as often as possible. I say this because that is exactly the impression I get from the cast of Knives Out.

However, this film goes a step further in that every member of the cast can be summed up in one word: unpleasant. A majority of the Thrombeys are self-absorbed, xenophobic dullards who hate that Harlan is closer to Marta than any of them. Considering what horrible people they are, one could hardly blame him. Two characters stand out as especially grating: Meg and Jacob. The former is frequently called a Social Justice Warrior and the latter is an alt-right troll. Older writers in the 2010s had immense difficulties writing characters intended to represent Generation Z, and Mr. Johnson was no exception. The dialogue of both characters come across like amalgamations of various social medias posts engaging in a contemporary culture war in cyberspace rather than things real humans would say. Considering how unusually active Mr. Johnson was on social media himself, this does make sense, but it doesn’t make the error any less egregious.

Jacob himself could be seen as a major red flag regarding Mr. Johnson’s headspace at the time. The backlash to The Last Jedi was such that Mr. Johnson felt the need to defend it even when he was supposed to be promoting this film. While I can sympathize with him wanting to put the alt-right in their place, it’s difficult not to conclude, based on Jacob’s presence, that the criticism of The Last Jedi struck a raw nerve. With Mr. Johnson labeling his critics manbabies, it soon became a common conclusion that if you didn’t like The Last Jedi, you were indeed an alt-right troll. Never mind the fact that a staunch liberal critic by the name of Owen Gleiberman was among those correctly calling out The Last Jedi for its many, many unfortunate implications. With Jacob’s dialogue mirroring what Mr. Johnson felt his most vocal detractors were saying, it demonstrated that, for all of his posturing, he was remarkably thin-skinned.

Then again, said posturing should’ve been your first clue.

As one needs the capacity to accept criticism to grow as an artist, it stands to reason that one who shuns guidance will stagnate. While hearing the same criticisms lodged toward you hundred – or thousands – of times would be draining, I don’t feel it to be a coincidence, based on Mr. Johnson’s behavior, that seven years after the release of Looper, he had improved not one iota.

The latter half of the 2010s saw an uptick in films attempting to appeal to the viewers’ emotions regarding important social issues. There are many factors that contributed to this trend, but the worst effect it had on film criticism was it encouraged people to seek emotional payoffs in lieu of something intellectually satisfying. In extreme cases, critics would outright strawman people for taking issue with plot holes or even just plot contrivances. With directors able to get away with misbegotten scripts so long as it reflected the critics’ viewpoints back at them, the level of talent among American screenwriters plummeted like a stone.

As it so happens, this was the perfect environment for a director such as Rian Johnson. Between Looper and The Last Jedi, Mr. Johnson firmly established himself as a style-over-substance director who could command an audience’s attention in the moment, but if they took a step back and actually thought critically, they would realize a majority of his ideas made no sense whatsoever. Experiencing his work often brought to mind the legendary Johnny Rotten quote “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Knives Out unfortunately continues that trend; it’s entertaining when you watch it yet manages to find a mortal enemy in the form of logic. Indeed, just the idea of logic is enough to make the story’s integrity crumble into dust.

While Knives Out is a better film than The Last Jedi if for no other reason than because it has the courtesy to limit the damage it inflicts to only itself, there is no getting around that it is rather convoluted. Moreover, while I do have an easier time appreciating his positive social messages than I did in The Last Jedi where they had even less of a reason to exist, they still date his film to the exact year it came out. This was a time in which writers were expected to hammer progressive ideas into their audience’s head with all of the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Critics frequently praised these films, but it’s a damning commentary on the state of their community how techniques that would have been considered bad storytelling in previous eras suddenly became the ideal standard. It got to the point where filmmakers were occasionally criticized for having the audacity to think highly of their audience.

Despite its missteps, I don’t think Knives Out is a bad film. It’s not for the thinkers in the audience, so if you’re looking for something mindlessly entertaining, it can tide you over for an afternoon. I can even see murder mystery fans getting something out of it, and Mr. Johnson’s weaknesses as a writer are mitigated somewhat by the genre itself. That being said, other than attempting to be a countercultural force mounted against a contemporarily conservative zeitgeist, Knives Out doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. In fact, it lags behind what Capcom accomplished with the Ace Attorney franchise. If you want intricate murder mystery plots starring great characters, those are the works you should check out; you don’t even need to be a gamer to enjoy them. Knives Out may have been acclaimed, but I find it to be further proof that filmmakers lost their claim to the artistic high ground to game creators in the 2010s.

Final Score: 5/10

21 thoughts on “Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019)

  1. I liked Knives Out more than Last Jedi (which is not saying much I’m aware) but I think they seriously needed to flesh out the relationship between Harlan and Marta considering the decision he makes. (I spent the whole movie thinking oh Harlan must have set them all up for a book or something.) She’s nicer than his family just doesn’t cut it but I get the feeling it’s more about the social commentary for Johnson even here.

    A big part of this film to seemed like it was made to appeal to mainstream critics so it will be interesting to see how he actually writes the sequel that’s not just another repeat of this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree that, for what little it is worth, Knives Out is a much better film. It helps that Rian Johnson chose a genre that better suits his strengths, but as you noticed, it didn’t completely mitigate his weaknesses.

      And you’re right; not expanding upon Harlan and Marta’s relationship was a missed opportunity. I have seen countless authors make the mistake of failing to develop a sacrificial lamb before they die (both The Last of Us and its sequel made this exact mistake). That approach can work, but you shouldn’t make the audience feel as though they are missing an important story beat or two. I sort of get it considering how badly his family sucks, but as you say, that doesn’t cut it. I think what makes Mr. Johnson’s unsubtle approach to storytelling so jarring is that he is unusually quiet when it comes to things that actually require an explanation. Consistency does count for a lot.

      And if I were making a sequel to this film, I think I would actually just want to shift genres entirely because unless it features a brand new cast, it runs the risk of being a retread. You can always count on Mr. Johnson to run the length of a football field with whatever harebrained idea he comes up with next, though, so you can continue to expect him to go the subversive route – even when it’s a bad idea.


    • As I said, I think Rian Johnson’s material is pretty cool in the moment, but it has a knack of completely falling apart the moment you begin thinking about it. The problem is that he doesn’t really have that luxury, as he clearly wants his audience to think about the social issues he raises, but like many directors of his ilk, there’s no room for leeway or nuance; to enjoy Knives Out is to enjoy it on his terms – not yours. Even just one year later, it is extremely dated.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey! A film review! It’s been a while since we had one of those, good to see them back.

    As for the film itself… yeah. I had a lot of fun with Looper as a mindless action movie, but as you said it, it didn’t really stand up to thought if you tried to put it together in your mind. Which is particularly harsh for it, as it calls attention to the functions of time travel, the same thing it doesn’t want you thinking about and the same thing that it really doesn’t make internally consistent. And the Last Jedi is a mess, and this movie, although I haven’t seen it, it still sounds a mess just from your summary, even before you start getting into the issues with it. So, I guess he’s not getting any better at that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, glad you liked it! I thought it would make for a nice change of pace.

      Yeah, across his body of work, Rian Johnson has the Naughty Dog problem in that he doesn’t want his audience to acknowledge his weaknesses, yet constantly puts himself in situations where they’re on full display. Looper was pretty bad in that regard because he was trying to be cerebral, but it’s clear he didn’t think things through and hoped the cool factor would be enough to carry him to the end (spoiler: it wasn’t). You can’t tell your audience not to think too hard while also encouraging them to think; that’s not how it works.

      I will say that Knives Out isn’t the unmitigated disaster that The Last Jedi was if for no other reason than because it really only hurt itself in the end, but it is a textbook “turn your brain off and enjoy” film just like Looper or The Last Jedi. There is little in the way of internal logic here; things are the way they are because the plot demands it. Except for the Nazi kid – he’s there because Rian Johnson handles criticism about as well as Neil Druckmann does.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well, it was written and directed by Rian Johnson, so that’s kind of a foregone conclusion. He’s one of those figures who is hailed as a genius by his fans, but I find his following vastly exceeds his level of talent.

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed this review. I wrote it in one day, so I like that it turned out well.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I think critics adore Mr. Johnson because he has demonstrated that, despite his artistic pretensions, he has no ambitions higher than dancing to their tune. It’s the only explanation as to why he managed to rise to the upper echelons despite having such crippling weaknesses. Looper, on the other hand, managed to get a pass because critics tend to grade on a curve when it comes to indie efforts – to a fault, I would argue. While I can appreciate trying to promote new talent, indie efforts need to stand on their own; after the rise of Quentin Tarantino and his ilk, “good for an indie effort” should no longer be a meaningful qualifier.

          So, while his work has had little trouble amassing acclaim, there is always an extenuating circumstance that makes taking said acclaim at face value extremely difficult. In the case of Breaking Bad, it’s the fact that he was under heavy supervision, in the case of Looper, it’s the fact that critics aren’t tough enough on indies, and in the case of both The Last Jedi and Knives Out, confirmation bias is to blame. It’s possible that somewhere down the line, he’ll make something genuinely good without all of those outside factors to help him along, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he eventually wipes out Shyamalan style.

          And don’t get me wrong; I am totally onboard with the progressive social messages of the latter two films, but there’s no getting around that their implementation was appallingly handled. I tend to be much harsher on works whose viewpoints I agree with because I don’t want them associated with a work of average/subpar quality.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I haven’t thought of it that way, but that makes a ton of sense. As someone who watches and reviews a ton of indie movies on one of my other blogs, I can’t stand that excuse. That just annoys me when people say it.

            I wasn’t aware he did work with Breaking Bad. Yeah, I doubt AMC would give him free reign with that particular show. Confirmation bias can be so annoying and I call out that stuff when it happens and not just with people who get way too happy with Disney movies (my favorite target to rip on for multiple reasons). We’ll see if Johnson is able to sink or swim with future projects.

            Definitely. There’s a difference between aim and target and I heard about how poorly things were handled. Very fascinating. I feel some similar ways when it comes to certain movies where even if I agree with the message, I will dock points if it’s handled poorly.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yeah, it’s especially unhelpful because that propensity to surround oneself with yes-men was precisely what led to the downfall of creators such as George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan. If someone with a lot of promise is making rudimentary errors, it’s better to let them know early on so they can eventually make something that actually lives up to the hype. As it stands, I don’t envision a lot of the 2010s indie darlings standing the test of time.

              As far as I know, he directed a few episodes of that show. While many cite said episodes as the best in the series, I think it just reinforces my point; that he’s the kind of creator who needs to be kept on a tight leash in order to succeed. If he is to improve, he really needs to let other people write scripts for him because, while I think he’s a competent director, his directorial skills far outpace his writing ability. Also, his diehard supporters are pretty cringe – just saying.

              Confirmation bias isn’t easy to overcome, but doing so is absolutely essential to being a credible critic. And I have to say that, while I still think there is a large amount of people who hate on Disney for highly unsympathetic reasons (that is to say, their own backwards-looking beliefs aren’t being validated), I really lost almost all respect for them in how they handled the Mulan acknowledgements. It retroactively makes the progressive-sounding pieces they’ve issued in the past ten years hollow with the knowledge that they are very much guilty of moral cowardice. They can only be counted on to be progressive when their bottom line isn’t at stake.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Sure thing. That can certainly be a downfall for so many others. I agree with that especially as an author. There were times where I had to ask people if something was working like a storyline or character. Interesting observation with 2010 indie darlings. I could see a few international directors who haven’t went Hollywood (yet?) lasting, but not everyone.

                Okay. I was just wondering. He should get some good writers, producers, and possibly even a co-director to give him some needed restrictions for the right reasons. Wow, those Johnson Stans are something else.

                I agree and there were times that I needed to challenge myself. I recently saw the latest film from an anime director that I’ve known since the 00s that I’ve enjoyed, but I found said film to be overrated and dated for the wrong reasons given current events. That live action Mulan situation from what I’ve heard was insane. I think I’ll stick to the Chinese live action remake Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, thank you. That’s sadly true about that sect of people who bash on Disney for backwards-reasons. Very good point about the House of Mouse being progressive when it’s convenient because they still have a long way to go. Don’t even get me started on that one rant piece I did last year or when I reviewed a certain Netflix documentary on Iridium Eye that gave me more ammunition to bash a certain property let alone the company’s business practices. Critics and the average viewers needn’t be so accepting of everything they watch.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Honestly, given how artistically conservative Hollywood has become in the past decade, it’s best that said international directors stay far, far away from Tinseltown. I think the fact that a majority of the Best Director winners in the past ten years have hailed from abroad speaks for itself – that whatever the United States filmmaking circles are doing, they’re not producing visionaries (or if they are, they aren’t producing visionaries actually worth listening to). The fact that the Academy is just now beginning to recognize international talent by awarding an international effort the Best Picture award demonstrates that, in that regard, they’re only just now catching up with video games in that regard.

                Indeed, they are. One would expect freaking out in CAPS LOCK and calling people who don’t like what they like dweebs is something most people grow out of before the age of eighteen, but Dana Schwartz evidently never got the memo. The cringe is strong with that one.

                That is, incidentally, how I felt about Weathering with You. Your Name was reasonably timeless and told an interesting story whereas Weathering with You wound up being too dated to take seriously as a standalone artistic statement. It also failed in the same way as the original The Last of Us in that its ending had a real “screw you, got mine” vibe to it that made me wholly unsympathetic to the protagonist.

                While their detractors go way too far in the other direction in how they are overly negative about everything and lose their minds when anything is remotely progressive, I also believe that mainstream critics have demonstrated an unwillingness to have definable standards. This is only going to harm the art of storytelling in the long term once directors realize they can get away with gaping plot holes or other contrivances as long as their narrative successfully pays lip service to the critics’ beliefs.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Sure. I should’ve said that I wish these international directors would stay away from Hollywood. Good point about the Best Director awards at the Oscars. I have certainly been more enthralled with foreign films more often than American ones and most of the American films I’ve liked over the past few years have been documentaries of all things. It took the Academy long enough even though they still have a ways to go.

                I know, right? If there wasn’t a picture of Dana or an actual name, I would’ve thought this would’ve been some teenage troll trying to be anonymous. Sure, I may have said some stupid and immature things online when I was younger, but someone like her should really know better.

                I was actually talking about that movie and director! Hahaha! I’ve known about Shinkai since the 00s just before The Place Promised In Our Early Days came out (great movie, by the way). Weathering With You looks amazing, but Shinkai rehashed so many things from his older movies and got complacent.

                That certainly makes sense. I’ve noticed double standards with bigger critics or having no standards at all. I haven’t thought about the implications about harming storytelling. Thanks for the insight about how insidious it can be.

                Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed this considering how I felt about the The Last Jedi but I think I might fall into that group who like a murder mystery regardless of it’s depth. I totally agree with the points you make though… there really are some flaws when you sit back and take a harder look at it. I do wish he tried to work on making the family a little more than one dimensional. Seemed a waste of the actors involved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Honestly, that’s fair enough. I would argue that Knives Out was only an improvement over The Last Jedi inasmuch that Rian Johnson is slightly behind where he started with Looper, but it definitely is serviceable as a mindless thriller. Otherwise, yeah, I found the flaws to be rather severe. And I didn’t even really notice the fact that Jamie Lee Curtis or Toni Collette were in this film because they play such bland characters. It’s actually kind of amazing that Rian Johnson was able to make such distinguished actors so boring and forgettable. I don’t know how he did that, but it’s not exactly the talent I wish to endorse. I feel Rian Johnson needs to hire someone to write the scripts for his films because, while I don’t think he’s a bad writer, he has not improved in the seven years between Looper and Knives Out.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Listening/reading log #14 (November 2020) | Everything is bad for you

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    • Thanks! To be honest, I thought it was pretty good when I saw it, but there’s no getting around that it hasn’t held up upon a second viewing. If Mr. Johnson thought things through more, he would be far more talented than what he demonstrated with this film. What a pity.


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