Injustice, inequality fuel two angry films

A disguised Cassie (Carrie Milligan) is on the prowl for sexual predators in Promising Young Woman.

By Richard Ades

Righteous anger has been such an overwhelming force in society recently that it’s not surprising it sometimes makes its way into the movies. One of the prime examples was released to theaters in late 2020 and subsequently was named the best film of that year by my colleagues in the Columbus Film Critics Association.

Promising Young Woman is the sad and provocative tale of Cassie (Carrie Milligan), a 30-ish coffee shop clerk who lives with her parents and has long since abandoned her career goal of becoming a doctor. Her reason for doing so isn’t revealed until well after we see the dangerous charade it’s led her into. Hitting the local bars and acting like she’s drunk herself into oblivion, she methodically fools men into thinking they can take advantage of her “helpless” condition—only to discover otherwise after they’ve taken her home.

Written and directed by Emerald Fenner, Promising Young Woman has been called a “Me Too” revenge tale, but that’s somewhat misleading. Cassie isn’t out for blood as much as she’s in search of justice and relief from the sorrow she feels over a long-ago sexual assault. Just how she goes about that search, and the psychological cost she pays in the process, is revealed so slyly and powerfully that Columbus critics also gave the film four additional citations, including nods for best actress (for Milligan) and best original screenplay (for Fenner).

Oscar nominations are likewise predicted to be in store for this offbeat thriller. Luckily for the curious but safety-minded, it is now being made available through VOD outlets.

Balram (Adarsh Gourav) has dreams of becoming a successful entrepreneur in The White Tiger.

Even angrier than Promising Young Woman is The White Tiger, an India-set tale that American director Ramin Bahrani adapted from a book by Aravind Adiga. Its plucky protagonist is Balram (played with ferocious wit by Adarsh Gourav), who was born into poverty but is committed to becoming a successful entrepreneur by any means necessary. He narrates the story of his efforts in the form of a letter he’s writing to a Chinese official who’s expected to visit India.

Balram believes his main problem is the servile attitude he shares with other Indians who weren’t born into wealth. As he sees it, this leads them to spend all their energy serving masters who often repay them with abuse and inadequate wages. Balram is determined to break this curse by finding a master who is worthy of his service and can help him better himself.

His choice is Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), a young businessman who’s just returned from the U.S. with his Indian American wife, Pinky (Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra). Balram has observed that Ashok is more decent than either his wealthy father (Mahesh Manjrekar) or older brother, who’s nicknamed the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). Unfortunately, though, old habits die hard. Neither Ashok nor Balram is immune to the proclivities of his respective class, leading to an uncomfortable situation that threatens to derail Balram’s quest to move up in society.  

With an amoral and ruthless “hero,” a keen awareness of social injustice and a tendency toward dark humor mixed with tragedy, The White Tiger will remind many of 2019’s Oscar-winning South Korean film, Parasite. The newer work isn’t quite that sublime, but it does entertain and challenge viewers in the process of venting its righteous anger.   

Promising Young Woman: 4½ stars (out of 5)

The White Tiger: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Promising Young Woman can be viewed at select theaters and is available through VOD outlets beginning Jan. 15. The White Tiger was released to theaters (including Columbus’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema) on Jan. 13 and will be available through Netflix beginning Jan. 22. Both films are rated R.

Sly script and unlikely casting fuel delightful whodunit

Knives Out detectives
Private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, left) searches for clues with the help of police Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, center) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). (Photo by Claire Folger/MRC II Distribution Co.)

By Richard Ades

Unfolding like a typical murder mystery, Knives Out dares viewers to answer the all-important question: Who cast Daniel Craig as a Southern private eye?

No, actually, the question is: Who killed Harlan Thrombey? As for Craig, it eventually becomes apparent that the erstwhile James Bond was cast as Virginia gumshoe Benoit Blanc simply for the hell of it, or perhaps as a sign that writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) plans to have a little fun with the genre film.

And with the help of Craig and additional big-name stars, that’s just what he does.

The tale starts out conventionally enough. After a housekeeper finds successful mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer) with his throat slit on the morning after his 86th birthday, police Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) begin investigating. Forensic evidence points to a suicide, but there are reasons to suspect foul play.

Not the least of them is the presence of Blanc, who is helping with the investigation after being hired by someone whose identity even he doesn’t know. Why would an anonymous benefactor pay the “gentleman detective” big bucks to investigate a suicide?

With Blanc’s help, the police also discover that several members of Harlan’s extended family—all of whom were present for his birthday party the night before—had motives for wishing him harm. Flashbacks show that Harlan had last-minute confrontations with others over misdeeds ranging from larceny to an extramarital affair. In some cases, he simply decided they were no longer worthy of his financial support.

Those caught up in the web of suspicion include:
• Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul and Harlan’s daughter
• Richard (Don Johnson), Linda’s husband
• Ransom (Chris Evans), their playboy son
• Walt (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s son, who runs his publishing house
• Donna (Riki Lindhome, Walt’s wife
• Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Walt and Donna’s internet-trolling son
• Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru and widow of Harlan’s older son
• Meg (Katherine Langford), Joni’s daughter

Knives Out Marta in middle
Embroiled in Harlan Thrombey’s murder investigation are (from left): Trooper Wagner and Lt. Elliott (Noah Segan and LaKeith Stanfield); Harlan’s caretaker, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas); his grandson, Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans); and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

Also around, but considered beyond suspicion, are Fran (Edi Patterson), Harlan’s housekeeper; Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), his loving nurse; and “Great Nana” Wanetta Thrombey, Harlan’s ancient and mostly silent mother.

As the investigation proceeds, Marta becomes an increasingly important resource to Blanc and the police. A young immigrant with an undocumented mother at home, she earns Blanc’s trust because (1) she clearly was Harlan’s closest friend and (2) she has an odd, if disgusting, disorder that renders her incapable of lying without vomiting.

With its plethora of suspects and red herrings, Knives Out at first resembles a typical murder mystery. Surely, we think, it’s only a matter of time before Blanc arrives at the truth. But then writer/director Johnson confounds our expectations by allowing us to learn what happened while the investigators are still in the dark—except that he doesn’t really, because there’s still a last-minute reveal that will take pretty much everyone by surprise.

Further differentiating the flick from the average whodunit is its class-consciousness. Marta, as portrayed by de Armas, comes off as a kind-hearted caretaker who’s been treated shabbily by Harlan’s entitlement-blinded relatives. Not only do they fail to invite her to her beloved patient’s funeral, but they can’t even remember what country she’s from.

In short, Knives Out amounts to sly, quirky fun brought to life by a great, committed cast. Leading it all, Craig revels in the role of the drawling, cigar-smoking Blanc, who may or may not live up to his reputation as a brilliant detective. As with everything else in the flick, we just have to wait and see.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Knives Out (PG-13) opens Nov. 27 at theaters nationwide.