Movie Review ~ Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

The Facts:

Synopsis: During the COVID-19 pandemic, billionaire Miles Bron invites his five closest friends and detective Benoit Blanc to his private island mansion, the Glass Onion, to participate in a “murder mystery.”
Stars: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista
Director: Rian Johnson
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 140 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  As much as the penny-pinching algorithms may tell the heads of movie studios that only established property franchise fare does well at the box office in this more restrictive movie-going environment, I still have a feeling that viewers crave more original work than the tired, conventionally familiar films arriving in theaters. After all, you can see the numbers for superhero movies, and long-running series start to dwindle and crack, leaving room for new material to have the breathing room it did in the late ’90s and 2000s. The timing couldn’t be better.

It’s partly why 2019’s Knives Out was such sweet relief, and I think it set the stage for what was to come, even though it came out pre-pandemic. Here was a film packed with stars in an old-fashioned murder mystery chock full of trickery and misdirects. Fun to see with a large audience, it provided the same adrenaline rush of the superhero movie without having that dull sameness of knowing what to expect at each turn. A box-office hit that nearly founds its way to a nomination for Best Picture, it still landed writer/director Rian Johnson a justified nod for Best Original Screenplay. Further, Johnson and star Daniel Craig had worked to create such a memorable character in Southern detective Benoit Blanc that both signed up for additional features in a new deal with Netflix.

The second Knives Out Mystery featuring Blanc, Glass Onion, has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year for Netflix. The streaming service has chosen to release it for a week in theaters before its debut later in December. This gives audiences wanting that in-house experience the opportunity to get off the couch and make it happen, while others can hedge their bets on not having plot elements spoiled for them. Rest assured, you’ll get nothing from me but the bare minimum of details. While Johnson’s follow-up isn’t as delicately weaved as his original, it’s another fun nut to crack because of an entire production overly eager to please.

As the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, four friends receive a puzzle box from their friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton, Alita: Battle Angel), which, when opened, contains an invite to their yearly gathering at whatever exorbitant paradise retreat he has planned. Friends since their early days before they were successful, they each owe some debt to Miles, or perhaps they are in debt to Miles – it’s not clear at first. Two more boxes have turned up at the doorsteps of Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe, The Glorias), Miles’s former business partner recently unceremoniously bumped out over a dispute on the future of the company, and Benoit Blanc (Craig, No Time to Die), the legendary detective who had been lamenting his boredom to a quartet of cameo-ing celebrities playing themselves (the first four of many either appearing onscreen or shamelessly name-dropped throughout as a running joke). 

Arriving on the island, online influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista, My Spy), fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson, Mother’s Day), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express), and governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn, A Bad Moms Christmas), acquiesce to their gauche hosts’ every whim, fawning over his theories and tacky tastes while ignoring how out of touch he is with the real world. Many monetarily benefit from his support, so why upset the apple cart? Andi isn’t there to make nice, though and takes every opportunity to stir up trouble. The observant Blanc mostly sits back in the sun and, like most good mystery sleuths, happens to be listening in on conversations that reveal more information than they should.

A series of events place a dead body on the ground and cast one party member as the murderer. Clues point to them, but an extended flashback fills in plot holes we’d noticed in the movie’s first half. This is when Johnson finally turns on the zest in Glass Onion and makes the film start to zing forward. Until then, it’s been a formal gathering of unlikable snooties demonstrating why they should be the ones to get the axe first – we aren’t sure who deserves it most. Johnson wisely focuses the flashback on an interesting character and takes the film in a direction I didn’t see coming. There are some subtle elements of cheating, and eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot one huge clue that gets contradicted almost immediately. This is one place where watching the movie at home may extend the mystery a while longer. Watching it on the big screen made this clue stand out like a spotlight was shining on it.

Mostly, Glass Onion’s enjoyment comes down to the cast, and for all of the hoopla surrounding the casting, Johnson has gathered the right mix of talents for this dish. Craig’s original creation for Knives Out was smooth and fun, with his accent dripping like molasses. In Glass Onion, he’s leaned in even further, which didn’t always work for me. Now, the accent is ‘seyw theyyywick Iowa hahd a hud tyme taykewin heym seeereuuuslee”. Kudos to one major reveal (with the aid of another acting cameo) that gives Blanc some personal backstory. Norton goes a bit over the top, as only Norton can, and Hudson is quite fun as a ditzy designer that had to be drawn a bit from Paris Hilton.

The film hinges on Monáe’s performance, and that’s all I can say. I had heard the same thing going in and was just as frustrated as you are by the lack of additional info. Trust me when I tell you, you’ll be glad to know as little as I did. Monáe continues to be someone you want to see more of onscreen, and Glass Onion is another level up in a career ascent that has been steady but not so rapid that it blows up before she’s ready. It’s the trickiest part in the film and, like the Ana de Armas character in the original, almost the entire crux of the evening depends on what you think of them. 

Denouements are the satisfying conclusions of the murder mysteries created by celebrated mystery authors and screenwriters. As strong as Glass Onion is, I felt its finale doesn’t have quite the bite it wants. Or I wanted. There’s some convenience included in the ending that felt out of alignment with the orchestration of the work, and I’m not sure if the way that Johnson had crafted the screenplay if he’d have ever gotten to a perfect conclusion. You’ll want to take a bite out of this Glass Onion, though, because the Knives Out Mysteries are just getting started, and this is a fine follow-up to a stellar opener.

Movie Review ~ Decision to Leave

The Facts:

Synopsis: A businessman plummets to his death from a mountain peak in South Korea. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife, Seo-rae, may know more than she initially lets on.
Stars: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Director: Park Chan-wook
Rated: R
Running Length: 138 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  While I take my role as a critic seriously, I pride myself on not being too much of a creaky contrarian who deliberately goes against the majority vote. I’ll let you in on another little secret of this inner world of reviewing movies: it can make for a chilly time on the playground if you are a voice of dissent for a film that’s soared to popularity among the masses. While writing this blog, I’ve experienced that frost a few times, but I’m usually the one who likes the movies everyone wants to toss in the bin, so it’s not so bad. As we make our way to the end of 2022, there’s a much-lauded title I’ve put off discussing that needs to be addressed so I can close the book on it. 

The film is the South Korean mystery Decision to Leave by celebrated director Park Chan-wook, who will forever be linked to the brutal brilliance of Oldboy and, more recently, the striking beauty of The Handmaiden. Decision to Leave won the directing prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is already favored as the frontrunner for Best International Feature at the Oscars, with Park Chan-wook also high on the list to receive his first nomination for Best Director. With all that buzz coming out of Cannes and many good reviews laid down as a golden carpet, why wouldn’t I sit down to this expecting it to knock my socks off?

The thing is, it didn’t. And it’s not just due to overhype or ‘festival fever’ that can affect movies seen by a limited number of reviewers that get their hooks into one film and proclaim it the next big thing. No, for me, Decision to Leave was a miss in the narrative storytelling Park Chan-wook has excelled at in the past. Never known for completely linear storytelling, the director employs some of those same time jolts here. Still, it’s to the detriment and forward motion of his overly serpentine mystery and characters that should be far more intriguing than they ever are. The moment they start to show subterfuge, Park Chan-wook jostles us again somehow, and the snow globe-fragile structure of the piece has to find time to settle.

Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is stretched thin between commuting to work and rarely seeing his wife due to their competing schedules. Any time they get to work on their relationship is put to the side when Hae-joon takes on a case of suspicious death where the wife of a retired immigration officer becomes the main suspect. The man is found dead at the bottom of a mountain, which could be a mere accident, but as Hae-joon and his partner Soo-Wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) dig deeper under the surface, they discover widow Seo Rae (Tang Wei) may have committed the perfect crime. How to prove it, though? And did the deceased have it coming to him?

The basic outline I’m giving you is a tiny tip of an iceberg plot that viewers will crash into repeatedly before the film lumbers to its conclusion after nearly two and a half hours. Admittedly, the plot developments have a Hitchcock flair, but they come at a hefty price: time. Hitchcock knew how to keep the viewer engaged, and I kept getting further detached from every character the filmmakers wanted us to be more interested in. Despite some inarguably breathtaking work by Tang Wei as a possible femme fatale that houses a multitude of oceanic currents under her calm demeanor, I struggled to find a reason to care much about anything.

In many ways, the same negatives that weighed down Christopher Nolan’s 2020 Tenet sank Decision to Leave. Both arrive from directors that have delivered some unforgettable films in the past but have let their love of the process overtake their understanding of the viewer’s experience. I didn’t just find Decision to Leave slack. I found it hard to track. No, I don’t need my hand held, but I need to understand what I’m supposed to be looking for in the first place.