Helen Mirren stars as a woman torn between a con artist (Ian McKellen) and her grandson (Russell Tovey) in “The Good Liar.”

THE GOOD LIAR: Movies are comprised of many elements, one of which is achieving peak performances from the cast. You’ll rarely see better acting than in director Bill Condon’s “The Good Liar,” which has a multi-layered screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher and is based on a novel by Nicholas Searle.

This entertaining crime thriller stars two acting legends, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, who are well-worth the price of admission. Also starring is an exceptional Russell Tovey, as the Mirren character’s grandson Stephen, who’s up to the task of appearing in myriad scenes with these two giants of the theater and cinema.

I saw McKellen’s brilliant and revelatory one-man show in London at the Harold Pinter Theatre on October 16, and I had the opportunity to chat with him one-on-one briefly afterward. Therefore, I was especially interested in seeing his new film. This is the fourth movie McKellen and Condon have made together. The others are: “Gods And Monsters,” “Mr. Holmes,” and the live-action “Beauty And The Beast.”

In “The Good Liar,” McKellen plays Roy, a con artist, who, with his partner-in-crime Vincent (Jim Carter, a pleasure to watch), sets his sights on Mirren’s lonely Betty, who is clearly made up of still waters that run deep. Roy finds himself actually liking his prim and proper mark. Will this ruin the hoped-for $3-million score? Or is Betty playing a cautious cat-and-mouse game of her own?

I enjoyed this Alfred Hitchcock-style tale immensely and recommend it. There are numerous sequences with Mirren and McKellen acting against each other, and these moments crackle. There’s great satisfaction in watching a well-made, richly-detailed mystery that tells a carefully constructed story. Throughout the movie, there are small hints about momentous revelations to come.

“The Good Liar” has plenty of delights to satisfy caper fans and devotees of on-screen duplicity. For those dedicated to seeing the finest acting possible, it’s magical.

KNIVES OUT: The main focus of this rambling potboiler is Marta (nicely played by Ana de Armas) the dedicated nurse caretaker of the successful and very wealthy mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who lives in a looming, multi-story stone mansion in the forested Massachusetts countryside. Harlan is the patriarch to a family comfortably well-off layabouts and greedy misfits, including a couple of dipsy-doodles: middle-aged Joni (Toni Colette) and teen-aged Jacob (Jaeden Martell).

As the movie begins, Harlan’s 85th birthday party is quickly forgotten after he may have committed suicide in a book-lined, top-floor room. Was he murdered? Writer-director Rian Johnson is toying with those beloved, big-old-house Agatha Christie mysteries; not only the movies made from them, but also the memories some folks have of a detective chomping on a cigar muttering: “indubitably.”

Johnson’s attempt to recapture beloved mystery moods is an overly cluttered take on the film “Clue” (from 1985 and based on the board game) and a less interesting version of “Murder By Death” (1976), which featured an all-star cast, and multiple detectives, including Lionel Twain, who was played by southern-born writer Truman Capote, falsetto drawl intact.

I mention Twain and Capote, because in “Knives Out” Daniel Craig plays legendary private detective Benoit Blanc, a less twee version of both Lionel the character and Truman the author. However, Craig’s faux southern accent, deep and resonant as it is, and cornpone detecting skills, are straight out of high school drama class. My dramatics teacher was actually named Eve Strong, an unforgettable red-haired character, who would have doused water on the swaggering Craig and told him to stop acting like a “chimpanzee mimicking a human.”

Johnson plays somewhat by the rules of the genre, but he overwhelms the fun by holding his characters up to ridicule. Each of them is overstuffed with troubles and tribulations. The coolest cat is playboy Hugh Ransom Drysdale (an eager Chris Evans), who drives one of those peppy, shorter, sporty BMWs. His mother Linda (a delightful Jamie Lee Curtis) is relatively smart, but not smart enough to outfox Johnson, who insists on incriminating everybody in his overlong screenplay. There’s even a cranky old lady – Great Nana – who adds a clue to the goings-on. Red herrings abound.

What’s the movie really about? Class consciousness and immigration, that’s what, which is why it falters. These wealthy capitalists draw weak laughs because none of them can remember where Marta is from. Is it Peru? Paraguay? Brazil? The movie mocks, but it doesn’t thrill.

THE AERONAUTS: History confirms that men and women soared into the stratosphere in hot air balloons in the 1800s. Therefore, why isn’t the film made about these scientific exploits more believable and exciting? “The Aeronauts” compresses numerous real-life persons, and we’re stuck with James (a bland Eddie Redmayne) and Amelia (a cheeky Felicity Jones).

The duo soars into the sky until they break records and even hit more than 30,000 feet above the Earth. However, the visuals are less awe-inspiring than they should be. Of course, it’s frigid up there, but Amelia and James make do without gloves, hats, or auxiliary oxygen. I didn’t believe the goings-on for a second.

Tom Harper directs from his and Jim Thorne’s dull writing without an appreciation of how to generate grand spectacle. I shouldn’t have been bored, but I was.


Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at

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