GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY
As you may recall from 2019's comedic whodunit Knives Out, the soon-to-be-deceased Harlan Thrombey and his soon-to-be-accused caregiver Marta Cabrera ended every evening with a friendly round of the board game Go. I mention this because, after seeing Rian Johnson's continuation Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, I've realized that reviews of this burgeoning franchise for Daniel Craig's Southern-dandy detective Benoit Blanc have been completely superfluous. The only critical analysis these films really require is a simple directive: “Go.”
Or, in the case of Glass Onion, “Stay,” given that Johnson's latest wickedly clever brain-tickler can be enjoyed from the comfort of your Netflix account beginning December 23. Yet before that day arrives, I certainly hope that a bunch of you choose to instead catch the movie on the big screen, preferably with a sizable crowd, because this thing is a definite crowd-pleaser. (And happily, despite Netflix not releasing box-office tallies for the service's theatrical releases, around $13-million worth of patrons apparently did pay to see it over Thanksgiving weekend.) All told, I can't say I preferred this new Blanc caper to its predecessor; I missed the original's generational divide (all of the potential suspects and victims here are roughly the same age), the effects-heavy finale was a bit much, and I was greedily hoping for one more, very specific twist beyond the many, many twists already provided. Also, despite being a notorious dimwit when it comes to solving these types of puzzles, I correctly guessed the murderer's identity within the first half-hour, which was both refreshing and deeply disappointing. Yet Glass Onion is still an utter blast – as sharp, funny, and beautifully plotted as Knives Out, and yet another haven for a delicious rogue's gallery of could-be killers.
As befits a series that wasn't shy about incorporating current events into its narrative (principally the sorts of red-v.-blue clashes common at many a Thanksgiving-dinner table), we meet our cast of untrustworthy characters during the springtime lockdown of 2020. Initially, they couldn't appear more dissimilar. Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), the liberal Connecticut governor initiating a run for the Senate, is anxiously preparing for a televised Zoom interview. Industrial scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) is fervently working on another piece of technology designed to make our lives better for a steep price. Men's-rights activist Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is streaming his latest screed on Twitch alongside his anti-feminist assistant Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). And fashion designer and disgraced celebrity Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is hosting a living-room bash for her bubble of several dozen drunk, sweaty acolytes to the annoyance of her aide Peg (Jessica Henwick). One wouldn't think these people would have anything in common beyond rapidly encroaching late-middle age. Yet it turns out they do: They're all lifelong friends of both one another and Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the tech billionaire who invites his pals to his remote island for a weekend-long game in which they're to solve the mystery of Miles' impending “murder.”
When they gather for their boat trip to the island, however, the attendees are unaware of a few things. One is that the face masks they're wearing – or, in Duke's and Whiskey's cases, deliberately not wearing – are unnecessary, as Miles has devised a spray that eliminates all traces of COVID. (In one of the few Glass Onion cameos I feel comfortable revealing, the guy administering this miracle cure is played by Ethan Hawke, who sprays everyone's throats and is never seen or heard from again.) Another is that one of Miles' invitees, and a guest he never dreamed would accept the invitation, is his former business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), who, we surmise, was dismissed from the company in ugly fashion and has been estranged from her former friends for quite some time. And the third surprise, for everyone including the weekend's host, is the arrival of super-sleuth Benoit Blanc, who received the same invitation the others did even though Miles claims never to have sent him one. Ignoring the question of why dipstick Birdie would ever think a mesh face mask would prove effective, Blanc's unexpected appearance is the first of Glass Onion's many juicy mysteries. It'll hardly be the last.
Here's where I should probably wrap this critique up with a succinct “Go.” A few more words, however, seem justified, particularly any used in praise of Johnson's ingenious storyline design. After the basic setup is established, I think most viewers will feel reasonably confident in presuming that we'll be getting two whodunits for the price of one here: determining the faux killer of Miles during the weekend's guessing game, and determining the actual killer of one of the guests – or even Miles himself – when a real corpse is ultimately discovered. Without spoiling things, that's what we're given. Yet I can't imagine that anyone will successfully predict how or when that first mystery is resolved, this flabbergasting, hilarious narrative masterstroke coming out of the blue yet, upon instant reflection, making all the sense in the world. As for the second, all I'll say is that the inevitable dead body drops somewhere around this 139-minute movie's midpoint, and almost immediately leads to Blanc announcing that he only needs to find one missing piece before the puzzle is solved. Ummm … what? We were just introduced to the victim and this detective has figured things out already?!
It should go without saying that, with an hour-or-so of screen time left to fill, this is the point at which Johnson's fiendishly witty contraption becomes positively Byzantine, and if the writer/director's script doesn't quite top his original's in terms of satisfying plot logic and cohesion, it absolutely ups the ante in regard to perspective, discernment of events, and subterfuge. (Unlike Marta in Knives Out, no one in this entertainment reflexively pukes when telling a lie.) Glass Onion may also be funnier than its forebear, which is a hefty compliment. Benoit Blanc remains the most inherently amusing film role Daniel Craig has yet had, and he continues to be a priceless presence: drawing out his honey-dipped vowels like they were taffy; getting huffy at the stupidity of criminals or, worse, the board game Clue. (We're also given delightful insight into Blanc's personal life courtesy of a cameo performer whose identity I won't reveal.) But everyone here, including the mere visage of Jeremy Renner, is given opportunities to score laughs, and among Johnson's faultless ensemble, most of the biggest ones are reserved for the sublimely vacant Hudson, the sardonic Henwick, and Jackie Hoffman, who comes close to stealing the movie before anyone ever gets to Miles' island paradise.
While onions generally last for several weeks without rotting, I'm well aware that Glass Onion can be spoiled with a few ill-chosen remarks, so it's best to end this review now. Seriously: Just go. And catch this sensational followup before someone accidentally or intentionally blurts out that _______ gets offed, that _______ did the deed, that _______ plays _______, or that the ballsy finale has the riotous nerve to _______ the _______ to a _______. Oh, and don't get me started on the astonishing Zoom pop-ins by _______ and _______. Johnson's is an onion made of glass, for Pete's sake. How is it possible that, for a few precious seconds, it practically left me weepy?
Director J.D. Dillard's U.S. Navy drama Devotion is exactly what I hoped Top Gun: Maverick would be and knew for certain wouldn't be: human. This isn't meant as a serious ding on the blockbuster sequel, which is undeniably more exciting than Dillard's biographical period piece, as well as, in all likelihood, a more effective recruiting mechanism than the frequently somber salute to heroism released this past weekend. Yet minute for minute, I preferred the low-key thoughtfulness of Devotion to the blithe adrenaline rush of the Tom Cruise smash, and appreciated that the former at least put actual, recognizable faces on its villains. In Maverick, our hero's adversaries are black-helmeted fighter pilots from an undisclosed region. In Dillard's film, they're all around our hero, in plain sight, every day of his life.
That hero is Ensign Jesse L. Brown (Jonathan Majors), who, in 1948, became the first Black aviator in the U.S. Navy. In prototypical bio-pic fashion, the film acquaints us with Brown's early failures and successes on his route to becoming a decorated officer during the Korean War, stopping occasionally for scenes of his contented domestic life with wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and toddler daughter, plus a few real-life experiences that seem ready-made for the movies. (With Serinda Swan doing a nifty impersonation of the star, we learn that Brown once became chummy with Elizabeth Taylor!) And with Glen Powell – who, ironically enough, played the enjoyably brash fighter pilot nicknamed Hangman in Top Gun: Maverick – on hand as Brown's wingman and eventual best friend Lieutenant Tom Hudner, Devotion is conventional almost to a fault. Most of the narrative turns occur precisely when you expect them to, and composer Chanda Dancy's score soars and subsides with such unsurprising regularity that you can all but set your watch to it.
Still, Dillard comes through with some outstanding set pieces, among them an aircraft-carrier landing that goes tragically (and literally) south and Hudner's frenzied run, in a deadly environment, toward a downed plane that's nerve-wrackingly presented in a single, uncut shot. But with Thomas Sadoski wholly deserving of mention as the squadron's fair-minded, level-headed commander, the best reason to see the movie is Majors, whose every moment on-screen is suffused with the knowledge that Brown had less to fear from the Koreans than from American racists, some of whom were his fellow officers.
In the film's most extraordinary sequence, we witness how Brown revved himself up for each day's challenges: by staring at his reflection in the mirror, and delivering on onslaught of vile, bigoted epithets designed to break his spirit – words, we later learn, directed at him by those he was serving with. It's a painful, infuriating, heartbreaking scene, and Majors' weakening force as his voice cracks and the tears fall are so overwhelming that they carry you through every subsequent instance of injustice in which Brown isn't allowed to be so demonstrative: the cruel taunts; the withheld promotions; even Hudner's own lack of awareness when writing his pal up for (justified) insubordination. Majors' is a perfectly calibrated, simmering slow-burn of a performance, and while he hasn't yet displayed much depth of personality (and isn't aided by the script's apparent disinterest in Hudner), the charismatic Powell partners him admirably, ceding the spotlight to his co-star at every conceivable opportunity. Devotion may not be great, but it's a more-than-solid historical action drama with a lot of greatness in it, and it largely delivers the emotionalism you want without coming across as manipulative. That's major. And Majors.
BONES & ALL
As Wikipedia's helpful description states, director Luca Guadagnino's Bones & All is a “romantic cannibal road film.” Yet before you sigh “Not that tiresome old chestnut again …,” let me add that the movie is also several other things, including: a 1980s period piece with a savvy, era-appropriate soundtrack (and an even savvier score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross); a character-actor parade boasting everyone from Michael Stuhlbarg and Chloë Sevigny to André Holland and the much-missed Jessica Harper; and maybe your one chance to witness Mark Rylance feasting on an elderly woman's innards while wearing a sleeveless T and tighty-whities. Given all this, how on Earth did Guadagnino manage to make his latest release boring as sin?
My thought? By taking everything too damned seriously. I have no idea what the tenor of author Camille DeAngelis' 2015 Bones & All novel is like – though debuting when it did, I wouldn't be surprised if it was that of a moody, dystopian YA romance in the vein of Twilight and The Hunger Games. Still, I find it hard to believe that the book could have more been oppressively dour than the gloomy slog that screenwriter David Kajganich has devised, which sends Taylor Russell's 18-year-old cannibal Maren on a cross-country trek to find her birth mother while falling in love with traveling companion and fellow flesh-eater Lee (Timothée Chalamet). I suppose the conceit of two good-looking kids not wanting but genetically needing to dine on innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders isn't necessarily the stuff of hilarity, but … isn't it, though? Not according to Guadagnino and Kajganich, it's not, both of whom employ Maren's and Lee's cravings the way most filmmakers of YA entertainments employ terminal illness: as a mood-dampening stumbling block getting in the way of a deserved Happily Ever After. Maren and Lee may prefer their meals freshly slain, but Maren, at least, sure does feel shitty about it, and her compulsive and excessive hand-wringing eradicates whatever gruesome fun Bones & All may have offered.
Despite Russell's skillful, sensitive portrayal and her mostly winning rapport with Chalamet – as a side note, I'd love to know the percentage of viewers less grossed out by Tim's cannibalism than by him giving an imminent victim a handjob before devouring the guy – it was really only the film's frequent rotation of guest stars that kept me from nodding off. Stuhlbarg, in particular, is a hideously arresting presence, sharing a gory campfire reminiscence alongside the cop (David Gordon Green) who wasn't born an “eater” but more than happy to join the brigade. (Fun fact: Stuhlbarg, in 2017, played Chalamet's dad in Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name. Their relationship is a lot less sanguine here.)
But while I also enjoyed the brief appearances of Holland, Harper, and an armless Sevigny, I actually wished I had nodded off during the scenes with Rylance's Sully, a veritable elder statesman of the cannibal tribe whose appearances may constitute the most embarrassing acting of the Oscar winner's formerly spotless screen career. Drawling like Daniel Craig's Benoit Blanc without the charm, aggressively tic-y in his physicality and affected in his rhythms, Rylance looks like he might be aiming for humor in the profoundly humorless Bones & All, but what results, sadly, is laughing at rather than laughing with. A romantic cannibal road film was something I didn't need to see. A bad Mark Rylance performance I never wanted to see.
GOOD NIGHT OPPY
Before proceeding with my rave for Good Night Oppy – director Ryan White's supremely involving documentary (newly streaming on Prime Video) about the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity that captured the world's attention from early 2004 to early 2019 – might I ask: What's with the recent absence of commas in movie titles? It's not an across-the-board absence: For a number of reasons, I'm grateful for Confess, Fletch, even if few others were. But after noticing the weird lack of punctuation in Don't Worry Darling, it started to feel like a trend. Shouldn't Everything Everywhere All at Once have had a comma – more precisely two of 'em? Same with Bodies Bodies Bodies? Didn't even Marcel the Shell with Shoes On deserve one? Grammar matters, dammit! And if this feels like stalling, it absolutely is. Because after watching White's lovely and inspiring doc last night, it's all I can do to type the comma-less title Good Night Oppy without memories of the film forcing me to well up so fiercely that I can't see my keyboard.
Detailing the history of NASA's sight-seeing, evidence-gathering robots from inception to creation to outer-space expulsion to their inevitable shutdowns (which the film more accurately treats as deaths complete with R.I.P. dates of existence), White's scientific procedural is endlessly informative. Better still, it's endlessly fascinating. Even those who avidly followed the rovers' exploits may have forgotten that, in Opportunity's case, a robotic creation that survived through four presidential-election cycles was only designed to survive for 90 days. And Good Night Oppy is brimming with peerless examples of down-and-dirty problem-solving, much of it, in NASA labs, employing replications of Mars and the 'bots. How does a rover extricate itself when two of its wheels are stuck in the sand? How does it survive a perilously cold winter? How does it do these things when the situations NASA is privy to take many months to get to them and many more months to advise solutions?
But the key to the film's success, to say nothing of its heart-swelling charm, lies in the wrongness of that “it” moniker. Because as Good Night Oppy makes abundantly clear, to those who worked on Spirit's and Opportunity's creation, the rovers aren't “it”s; they're “she”s. Twinned “she”s, to be exact. And while it may seem cornball when the movie's clearly invested, happily chatty talking heads refer to the 'bots showing signs of arthritis and memory loss and refer to machine parts as “elbows,” White's ultimate message is apparent: Spirit and Opportunity were every bit as real, as human, as their co-workers at NASA. (One of the team's members equates Opportunity's fading memory with that of her Alzheimer's-addled grandparent, and it doesn't feel like a stretch.) Consequently, with the enhancement of the rovers being reminiscent of both WALL·E and Short Circuit's beloved-for-some Number 5, you find yourself not just intellectually but emotionally tied to their plight – a state that, admittedly, White and his creative team appear more than ready to augment. (Hearing the Beatles' “Here Comes the Sun” on the soundtrack was already pretty mean, but Billie Holiday's rendition of “I'll Be Seeing You” was just plain unfair.) Yeah, Good Night Oppy is missing a comma. As brain-stimulating, heart-tugging documentaries go, that's pretty much all it's missing.
Every molecule of my being resents having to type this, but Disney's animated adventure Strange World is so relentlessly, oppressively politically correct that, moments after seeing the film, I felt like I needed a six-hour FOX News binge just to rid myself of its effects. Memo to Disney: This is why conservatives hate us.
Picture, if you can, a movie that suggests what Alexandria Ocasio-Coretez's favorite of all time might be if the congresswoman had no taste at all. One of its heroes is cis white dude Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), an interstellar farmer who routinely embarrasses his teen son with lip kisses shared with his Black wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) – more lip kisses, I'd argue, than previously seen in the entire Disney canon dating back to the late 1920s. Another one of its heroes is said son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), a gay 16-year-old harboring a not-so-secret crush on teen POC Diazo (Jonathan Melo), with their friends including two other male teens of color and a white girl with rainbow braids who appears relaxedly non-binary. (Dad, to Ethan's mortification, is totally, demonstrably cool with his son's gayness.) They're eventually recruited by an exploration team led by Lucy Liu's Callisto Mal – a team boasting one apparent Native American and one apparent Indian-American – to investigate a diminishing supply of fossil fuels, which leads to the introduction of our third hero Jaeger (Dennis Quad). Searcher's dad and Ethan's grandpa, the long-thought-dead adventurer Jaeger proves to be a toxically heroic man's man who would happily watch six-hour FOX News binges if that was a thing in the distant world of Avalonia. And as they all bicker and bond while trying to preserve their world's reliance on fossil fuels while also gradually realizing that there might be an alternative in farming … .
Enough. Representation is wonderful. Alternatives to fossil fuel are, at the very least, theoretically wonderful. Shoving this movie's liberal bona fides down our throats in the manner of director Don Hall's and screenwriter Qui Nguyen's Strange World is decidedly anti-wonderful. It's not like the movie would have been much better had it been less pushy: the action sequences are depressingly rote; the sentiment grossly unearned; the jokes intensely unfunny; the emotional connection nonexistent. (At the screening I attended, I'm pretty sure I heard more chatter amongst the film's young audience members than I actually registered on-screen.) But aside from the deliriously aggressive PC-ness of it all, the only thing I took from the obnoxious experience of Disney's latest was that every one of its colorfully hallucinatory figures – from the hugest monstrosities to the “adorable” blue blob that serves as Ethan's R2-D2 – resembled a squishy stress ball. Or maybe that was mere projection. Because after an hour and 40 minutes of this prolonged assault in the guise of family-friendly fun, God knows I was aching for a squishy stress ball.