Wednesday, November 30, 2022

'Glass Onion': Another entertaining mystery


Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Dir: Rian Johnson

Scr: Rian Johnson

Phot: Steve Yedlin

Ed: Bob Ducsay

Premiere: Nov. 23, 2022

139 min.

Who can explain the sudden popularity of the murder mystery? Perhaps it was the pandemic, which led some to binge on the pleasures of Christie, Sayers, and James. Perhaps everyone is in the mood to solve puzzles, preferably in each other’s company, thanks to the long period of isolation. At any rate, what was thought to be the province of advanced-years cottagers turns out to be something fun and stimulating, something everyone would like to take a crack at.

Netflix released Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery to theaters for only a week, in preparation for its release online on Dec. 23. This unique strategy means that all of us who love a good murder mystery were forced to go out in the cold, risking our health and sanity by actually travelling to a movie theater to catch it before it left the theaters. What was a casual event has become a fraught expedition.

The devilish trick to reviewing a murder mystery is to not give anything away. Its success relies on the revelation of information, the unwinding of motives, and the identification and punishment of the murderer. Since analyzing how this film covers these important genre specifications would be to reveal the ending, it’s necessary to step back and refer to some of its other, non-spoiler elements.

Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson created a franchise when he released Knives Out (2019), the first adventure of the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc, played with southern-fried acerbity by Daniel Craig. Now the sleuth finds himself summoned to a Greek island, where an Elon Musk-like billionaire, Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has summoned his oldest friends, who are also slavishly dependent on his favors.

Of course, all these guests are also potential suspects. They include the singer Birdie Jay (a hilariously dim Kate Hudson), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), politician Claire DeBella (Kathryn Hahn), blogger Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), and Bron’s former business partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monae). Their characters are sketched out with satiric wit, and inhabited with hammy glee by the participants. Glass Onion is not subtle.

Bron proposes a murder mystery game to be staged at his palatial mansion. What happens next is up to the viewer to discover, but let it be said that Johnson plays the game fairly, sprinkling clues here and there, surprising us with twists, and leading us patiently to the denouement.

Blanc is a memorable character, and Craig plays him with obvious pleasure. (Blanc is evidently living in a domestic situation with a character played by Hugh Grant, and other celebrities pop in unexpectedly as well.) The filming is spare, straightforward, and functional, bereft of directorial flourishes that might confuse the story.

Is it as good as the first movie? Not quite. You must take this film’s premises with a grain of salt, and there is some wiggle room when it comes to clues that might lead you in the wrong direction. Still, Glass Onion’s conclusion is logical. That it serves up its mystery with a soup-con of humor makes it all the more welcome, especially during the holiday season. We can discuss spoilers after December 23., 

Come for the mystery; stay for the satire of late-stage capitalism. And, you will love Derol.



Tuesday, May 10, 2022

'The Northman': Viking funeral


The Northman

Dir: Robert Eggers

Scr: Sjon, Robert Eggers

Phot: Jarin Blashchke

Ed: Louise Ford

Not a lot of gags.

None, in fact. ‘The Northman’ is very serious. So very serious that, if you don’t buy into its premises, you will spend your time with this movie tittering at the grandiose and gory events that unfold onscreen.

"The Northman" is a Viking saga, set in the late 9th-early 10th centuries, filled with larger-than-life characters. Our hero is Amleth (Amleth=Hamlet, get it?), who as a child, witnesses his king-father’s assassination at the hands of his brother, Fjolnir the Brotherless (so called after he offs his brother and takes his wife, natch). “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you Fjolnir,” the boy weeps, as he flees. Pay attention. This will become his mantra.

Fast-forward 20 years or so, and Amleth is now a big, beefy young man who likes nothing better than climbing palisades and cutting parts off of people in a wild berserker frenzy. He meets a seeress (Bjork, in case you couldn’t tell) who tells him that the time for his revenge has come.

Disguising himself as a slave, Amleth gets himself shipped off to Iceland, where Fjolnir, his mom, and a couple of step-brothers hang out. Amleth’s plan of vengeance is slow and deliberate, and involves such things as obtaining a magic sword, playing Marine lacrosse, and killing people with his forehead.

He is abetted in this by his soulmate, the provocatively titled Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is a witchy woman . . . well, at least she knows a little about psychedelic mushrooms. Nothing will stop the freight train of revenge, even the occasional vision or hallucination on Amleth’s part. Fate is leading him on, and it is a winding and windy path.

So what is the problem here? Director/co-screenwriter Eggers points out the strict attention to accurate period detail in the film. Onto this environment of medieval realism is imposed a two-dimensional story with two-dimensional characters. None of the characters change or grow. They spend a great deal of time staring directly and dourly into the camera, as though they were daring us to laugh. I laughed.

It gets to the point that your eyes wander over to all the background performers, watching to see if they break character or not. I kept expecting Monty Python to show up.

Oh dear, what else? Everyone speaks with varying generic “European” accents, and I think a little Irish and Scottish creep in there as well. Our hero is saved by ravens, like a Disney character, only one almost beaten half to death. Why does the Valkyrie wear braces? And what ever happened to Thorir’s heart? Most importantly, what are Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman doing in this movie?

These questions and others rattle around in the skull as the players roar and swear and make preposterous bombast about their intentions at each other. The real point of this is the violence, which is more than sufficiently brutal. The final showdown is a homoerotic symphony – two naked guys sword-fighting in front of a volcano. Get a room, you two.

Anyone seeking a corrective to the campiness of 1958’s “The Vikings” is in for a disappointment. “The Northman” is high camp in its own gritty fashion.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

'Everything Everywhere All at Once': a surreal triumph


Everything Everywhere All At Once

Dir: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Scr: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Phot: Larkin Seiple

Ed: Paul Rogers

Premiere: March 25, 2022

139 min.

The multiverse is hot right now: a large number of films, TV shows, and written works are exploring the possibilities of this sci-fi subgenre. Like the easily resurrected superhero, the multiverse is a neat way to get around plot problems, but rarely is it used in a truly imaginative way.

But bonkers, happily, gloriously bonkers is “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” an exuberant sci-fi comedy about alternative dimensions that manages to also be a moving family drama. It’s an inspired excursion across countless realities, all executed in the name of getting your taxes done properly.

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) runs a laundromat, and lives in cramped confines above it with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Kwan, who you will remember as Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”) and their adolescent daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Joy is struggling with coming out, and Evelyn is hostile to the idea. Waymond is so desperate for her attnntion that he files for divorce. They are being audited by the IRS, and Evelyn must gather family and receipts and go down to the tax office to face the unfriendly Deidre (a hilariously uglied-up Jamie Lee Curtis), who cites them for multiple failings.

In the midst of this mundanity, a cosmic storm is brewing. Evelyn is visited by Alpha Waymond, from an alternate universe. It turns out that every choice you make in life spawns a new universe, a new timeline for your life. Our Evelyn is the least successful of all possible Evelyns, explains Alpha Waymond, which gives her the greatest power to change. Somehow, Evelyn must fight her way across the multiverses to stop an evil avatar of Joy from destroying the multiverse with an Everything bagel, and reconcile herself with her life choices and with her daughter. (Trust me; it all makes sense in context.)

All these development crowd the frame with rapid-fire imagery and complications, and the film tears through its premises at breakneck speed, trusting in the viewer’s intelligence, daring us to keep up. Directors/screenwriters Dan Kwan and Daniels Scheinert take the enormous risk of making what could easily be an incoherent mess, rendering instead a dizzying but satisfying trip through all of Evelyn’s alternative futures.

Of special note are Larkin Seiple’s exquisite cinematography, Shirley Kurata’s out-of-this-world costume designs, and the dryly humorous performance of the prolific James Hong as Evelyn’s wheelchair-bound father, Gong Gong.

This film is nutty, unlike anything you’ve seen before. And even though its premise is well-used, it is used well.