GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022)

November 24, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Of course we do get a murder mystery (maybe even more than one!), yet the real case study may be in how the billionaire tech mogul celebrated for his business savvy and creative genius is actually an egotistical putz who stole one brilliant idea from his former partner. Another mystery is what to say about writer-director Rian Johnson’s (STAR WARS VIII – THE LAST JEDI, 2017) follow up to his superb first KNIVES OUT (2019), without giving away too much. Clearly, Johnson went all-in for the entertainment factor, and it’s a sure bet that most will find a good amount of joy watching this.

The traditional introduction of characters and suspects is handled through the arrival of seemingly impenetrable wooden boxes delivered to the five friends of the above-referenced billionaire Miles Bron (an overly-hyped Edward Norton). Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is a former model clueless to the ways of ‘woke’ society, blocked from social media by her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick). Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a pistol-packing testosterone-fueled Twitch influencer who hangs with his girlfriend Whiskey (Madeline Kline). Claire Debella (an underutilized Kathryn Hahn) is a regretfully-for-sale ambitious politician. Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr) is the genius tech inventor who receives middle-of-the-night faxes from Miles. Lastly, a terrific Janelle Monae plays the former business partner outmaneuvered in a dirty way by Miles.

Each friend solves the intricate puzzles required to open the box, it’s Duke’s ma (Jackie Hoffman) who excels as a puzzle whiz in the most comical manner … well, maybe not as funny as Janelle Monae’s approach. While all the puzzle-solving is occurring, we see super sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) soaking in his bathtub, wishing for a stimulating case as he Zoom calls with his friends – including Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This is the first of many high-profile cameos sprinkled throughout, including Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Serena Williams, Natasha Lyonne, and Yo-Yo Ma.

Discovered inside the wooden box is an invitation to a Murder Mystery party at Miles’ lavish private Greek island resort. When they arrive, Miles is baffled by Benoit’s admission that he had received an invitation, as only five were sent. The five friends are referred to as “disruptors”, and though each has been the recipient of Miles’ funding, they also have their own reasons for revenge … these reasons venomously pointed out by Ms. Monae’s character as they lounge around the pool.

Benoit Blanc spoils the murder-mystery party Miles has planned almost before it starts, however, a real murder kicks things into frenetic gear. A humorous complement to Benoit Blanc’s saucy southern accent is Miles’ world-class word butchering – constantly mispronouncing words, making them up, or using them incorrectly (each to the annoyance of Benoit). The overuse of “buttress” is quite the gag, as is the famous portrait hanging in the main hall, and the consumption of caviar. Another ongoing joke is Benoit Blanc’s annoyance at the game of “Clue”, which he terms “a terrible game.”

Despite the many red herrings, McGuffins, and misdirections, we realize what suffers is the actual murder investigation. It’s no surprise that the rich and famous aren’t upstanding citizens, and we see they don’t even make good friends. While the first KNIVES OUT movie focused on the fight for the generational money of Christopher Plummer, director Johnson has this time opted for jabs (stops short of satire) at the nouveau-rich, who are portrayed as entitled, spoiled, and out-of-touch. Johnson made a conscious decision to focus on the comical aspects of society and these characters, and the result is entertainment that feels good in the moment, but leaves us wanting a bit more substance. Still, “Knives Out 3” is expected in a couple of years and we look forward to an even different approach.

Opens in theaters on November 23, 2022 and begins streaming on Netflix December 23, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (2022)

November 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The big secret was spoiled before the film ever hit theaters, and of course, I won’t reveal anything here for those who have managed to avoid the leaks. We do learn the identity of the new Black Panther, complete with action sequences. What really stands out in this sequel to the 2018 original, is that writer-director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole return with less action, and more focus on grief, the transition of power, and the introduction of yet another society that has lived undetected for generations.

The film opens with the death of King T’Challa from a mysterious illness. We see his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and the whole of Wakanda attending his funeral in a sea of white. Ms. Bassett kicks into dominant Queen Mother mode, while butting heads at times with Shuri in a collision of tradition vs. science. A couple of sequences make sure we understand that Vibranium remains the most valuable and sought-after natural resource on the globe. Wakanda will stop at nothing to protect their way of life and their corner on the Vibranium market. However, it turns out, it’s not a corner they control, but rather one they share with a previously unknown society.

The CIA is involved … in a botched mission of greed, of course … and this means Agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman) continues his communication relationship with Wakanda, which drags the agency director and his ex-wife (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) into the fray. The story has many tentacles and bounces around the globe, mostly to appear complicated and important. Other familiar characters are back, including the fierce Okoye (Danai Gurira, a standout in the first film), M”Baku (Winston Duke, given little to do this time), and super spy Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) who now runs a school in Haiti.

New to the proceedings are Dominique Thorne, who plays 19-year-old MIT science and technology whiz, Riri Williams, and especially Tenoch Huerta as Namor, the ruler of the underwater kingdom of Talokan. Not back are Daniel Kaluuya (scheduling conflicts?) and, of course, the late Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in 2020. Director Coogler includes a tribute to Boseman over the opening credits, and another near the film’s end.

The film is two hours and forty-one minutes long, and definitely drags at times. Still, the attempt at in-depth storytelling is commendable in the Marvel universe, though on a couple of occasions, the interjection of songs are distracting and recall 1980’s filmmaking. The underwater segments look somewhat realistic rather than cartoonish, and the reveal of the new Black Panther probably won’t surprise many – although the high-profile cameo might. Everything about the movie seems to set the stage for more sequels, all quite likely despite this one not reaching the unattainable level of the original.

Opens wide in theaters beginning November 11, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE GOOD NURSE (2022)

October 26, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. A film focusing on a single mom who works as a dedicated and caring and overworked ICU nurse, and who is diagnosed with a heart condition requiring a transplant, and who is trying to hang on to her job long enough to secure medical insurance, and who is a loving mom to her two young kids, would normally have enough drama and stress to carry the story. But that’s not nearly enough for filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, who has written three outstanding screenplays: THE HUNT (2012), A WAR (2017), and ANOTHER ROUND 2020). Here he’s directing a Krysty Wilson-Cairns (LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, 2021) adaptation of Charles Graeber’s book about the man who may very well be the most prolific serial killer in history.

Jessica Chastain plays nurse Amy Laughren, who is faced with numerous challenges both at work and at home. Despite needing a heart transplant, she keeps this secret from her employer so that she can work the last few months needed to gain health insurance through the New Jersey hospital where she works. Strained beyond reasonableness, she sees hope when a new nurse is hired. Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) discovers her secret and offers to help her – not just with her patient workload, but also with her parenting responsibilities. Charlie is a Godsend for Amy.

Too soon, doubts begin to show. One of Amy’s patients dies unexpectedly, and the hospital administrator (Kim Dickens) calls the police, in what is a defensive move to protect the hospital’s business rather than uncover the truth. The detectives played by Noah Emmerich and (former NFL star) Nnamdi Asomugha feel handcuffed in their investigation as the hospital blocks their efforts at every turn. Their suspicion focuses on Charlie and his strange work history of being dismissed by 9 previous hospitals.

The obvious evil here is a medical professional who kills patients, but the enabler of this evil is a hospital system that values reputation and finances over the morally correct decisions. Both are frightening and both are dangerous. Cullen killed at least 29 people, and is suspected of killing upwards of 400. Lindholm sticks to a drab palette to match the grim subject matter, and both Ms. Chastain and Mr. Redmayne take low key approaches to two characters … one heroic and one truly dangerous.

Streaming on Netflix beginning October 26, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


VESPER (2022)

September 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We are always looking to the future, and yet so many movies paint a bleak post-apocalyptic picture of what’s ahead. Co-writers and co-directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper, who previously collaborated on VANISHING WAVES (2012), are joined here by co-writer Brian Clark to deliver something that still looks bleak, yet is something that not only has a unique style, it also founds a new sub-genre I’ll call arthouse science fiction.

Raffiella Chapman plays Vesper, a 13-year-old forced to survive off the shredded land while also playing caregiver to her disabled father (Richard Brake). She manages his feeding tube and is followed around by the drone through which he calmly communicates … the floating drone looks a bit like Wilson the volleyball. Vesper is also a bit rebellious and exceedingly clever and intelligent. We first see her scavenging the land for anything useful in feeding Papa or furthering her experiments in her self-made lab located in their own cabin in the woods.

It’s a dreary existence and the film even begins by informing us this is the “new Dark Ages” thanks to an ecological disaster. Genetically engineered seeds are the only hope for food, and most everything is controlled by the Citadel, which is run as an Oligarchy. Those on the outside are left to their own devices, and this includes Vesper and her ruthless Uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan). When a glider crashes in the woods, Vesper rescues one of the injured inhabitants. Camellia (Rosy McEwen) and her shock of white hair is different … nearly ethereal and otherworldly. The two bond, but something never seems quite right.

We know a showdown is coming, but it may not be the one we expect. The film stresses the importance of the parent-child bond, as well as the importance of altruism. Even more crucial is the impact of the demise of the ecosystem. Filmmakers Buozyte and Samper use minimal special effects (especially for a sci-fi film), and still manage to create a world that seems quite real and populated with unrecognizable organisms. A cool score by Dan Levy accompanies a world that may have limited resources, but still features class division and a lust for power among some. Will we ever learn?  Probably not. But a terrific performance from young Ms. Chapman and the hopeful vision of the filmmakers inspires us to keep trying.

In theaters and VOD beginning September 30, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


GOD’S COUNTRY (2022)

September 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Do you ever have that feeling that if no one’s going to do something then “I guess I will”? These days it seems our systems and institutions are failing us, and that’s at the heart of what is eating at Sandra (Thandiwe Newton), a college professor living in a remote house in the mountains. When the film opens, she is at the crematorium for her recently deceased mother. Soon after, two hunters park on her land, and their reactions after she politely asks them not to, tells us where this story is headed.

Writer-director Julian Higgins and co-writer Shaye Ogbanna never give Sandra (or us) any reason to think everything is going to be just fine. It’s a slow-burn towards disaster, and we can’t help but watch to see how bad situations turn worse and how the conclusion plays out. Violence is expected … especially after we see how ineffective the local acting Sheriff (Jeremy Bobb) is at his job.

The ”chapters” in this story are actually the days numbered so that we can keep up with the tension. A red truck, an arrow in the door, a police report, a faculty meeting, a church organist, and the disclosure by a student (Tanaya Beatty) all lead us to the dreaded seventh day. The stress builds for Sandra, who manages to hold her tongue quite often, right up until she doesn’t. It’s clear to us that she’s carrying a bitterness and a chip … and seeking vengeance. It’s easy for us to emphasize with Sandra in the first two acts, though it’s likely many will join me in being a bit disappointed in the final act.

WATCH THE TRAILER


SEE HOW THEY RUN (2022)

September 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1953 in London’s West End and the cast of “The Mousetrap” is celebrating its 100th performance. Of course, Agatha Christie’s play with the twist ending would go on to be the all-time longest running show in the West End, interrupted only by COVID restrictions in 2020. This is the first feature from director Tom George, and the screenplay by Mark Chappell involves a murder mystery wrapped around the murder mystery play.

Harris Dickinson plays the Dickie Attenborough, the original Detective Sergeant Trotter … and yes, that’s the same Richard Attenborough who played the likable John Hammond, the developer who “spared no expense” in creating Jurassic Park. So while Dickinson plays the detective on stage, it’s Oscar winner Sam Rockwell who plays Inspector Stoppard … the London detective assigned to solve the real murder of Leo Kopernick (Oscar winner Adrien Brody), which occurred in the theater during the cast party. Kopernick, an abrasive American director, was in talks to create a film version of the play.

Assisting Stoppard with the investigation is rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), who writes every detail in her notepad, and is overly quick to name the killer in her eagerness to solve the case. Rockwell chooses a laconic, prosaic approach for his Inspector Stoppard to contrast mightily with Ronan’s overzealous Constable Stalker. We are treated to two terrific actors playing off each other. Unfortunately, the screenplay and overall movie simply doesn’t deserve these two … or the balance of the talented cast which includes Ruth Wilson, an unusually flamboyant David Oyelowo, and the always great (and criminally underappreciated) Shirley Henderson.

With the recent success and popularity of Rian Johnson’s KNIVES OUT (2019), it’s perfectly understandable why producers and movie studios would want to capitalize on the newly discovered beauty of whodunnits, but there is a distinct line drawn between effective murder mysteries (whether dramatic or comedic) and those that offer no real punch or tension. The theater makes a grand setting, and the well-choreographed hallway scene provides a dash of fun, but overall this one is just too flat to recommend.

Opens in theaters on September 16, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


BARBARIAN (2022)

September 9, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a dark, stormy night. If that’s not scary enough, Tess is in Detroit. She hops out of her car and dashes to the front door only to find the key is missing from the lockbox. Her Airbnb has been double-booked and a confused and sleepy man answers the door. When Tess agrees to ‘come in’, we veterans of the horror genre know exactly where this movie is headed. The only problem with our theory is that writer-director Zach Cregger has made it his mission to mess with our heads – and the genre – by confounding us at every turn.

Georgina Campbell (“Broadchurch”) plays Tess and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in IT, 2017) is Keith, the settled Airbnb tenant. The two actors are superb during their awkward encounter, as Tess comes across as an intelligent and cautious woman, fully aware of the red flags in this situation. Keith is a bit shy, yet polite and accommodating – and also aware of what might make Tess uncomfortable. But Keith looks exactly like the guy who played Pennywise, so Skarsgard’s look results in the perfect contrast with this character’s demeanor … keeping us viewers (and Tess) on our toes.  

It’s really the structure of the storytelling that gives this one a creative punch. Cregger serves up 3 different perspectives and then tries to wrap things up in a final act. I actually found all three puzzle pieces well done and interesting, leaving only the wrap-up a bit lacking. In addition to Tess and Keith, we get Justin Long as a cocky actor named AJ cruising along the California coast in his convertible, singing along at full pitch. A phone call abruptly shifts the tone and soon AJ is on a flight leading him to the front porch of a rental property he owns in Detroit. Yep, the same Airbnb Keith and Tess double-booked. Thirdly, there is a flashback to well-kept homes with perfectly manicured lawns. Right again … the same house a few decades earlier before blight took over the neighborhood. It’s in this stage where we note the homeowner (played by Richard Brake) follows a young woman home from the store and gains entrance under false pretenses.

If this seems like a lot to tie into one horror film, that’s because it is. We’d like to know more about Tess. We welcome AJ’s natural sarcasm, and Brake’s early years could have been the creepiest of the bunch. Cregger excels at atmospheric tension and disorienting camera angles, especially in the always dreaded dank basement with hidden hallways and secret rooms. He’s also clever with his misdirection and inclusion of contemporary issues like immediate ramifications of accusations, and the defensive mode that women must maintain when deciding to accept a cup of tea. I certainly enjoyed the jolting cuts from one storyline to the next. However, I will admit to feeling frustration that Tess was set up as such an intelligent person, only to make multiple decisions that force us to suspend disbelief … a trait of far too many horror films.

Opens in theaters on September 9, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


BREAKING (2022)

August 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Bank robbers are commonplace in movies, and some focus on the planning stage, while others look to the actual robbery or the escape. Writer-director Abi Damaris Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah tell the true story of a man who went into a bank, made a bomb threat, and took hostages … all while having no intention of stealing the bank’s money. A former Marine went to this extreme to make a very visible point about how veterans are mistreated, especially by the VA.

John Boyega (Finn from “Star Wars” franchise) stars as Brian Brown-Easley, a veteran struggling in a day-to-day existence, when a clerical error at the VA results in his latest disability check being withheld. This leaves Brian homeless, and the only assistance the VA offers is a brochure. Brian chats lovingly with his young daughter Kiah (London Covington), but their conversation is cut short because he can’t afford to add more minutes to his phone. Brian is so disturbed by the situation that he builds what appears to be a bomb and heads down to the local Marietta Wells Fargo branch.

The tension escalates quickly when Brian drops the handwritten note at the teller window, “I have a bomb.” Rosa (Selenis Leyva) tries to stay cool, but, Estel (Nicole Beharie), the Branch Manager, notices the panic in her eyes and quickly ushers out as many customers and employees as she can. Brian allows everyone to leave except Rosa and Estel, and he encourages them to call 911. It turns out he wants all law enforcement and media to show up so he can tell his story and relay the lack of respect from the VA.

Soon, Brian is chatting with a local TV news producer (Connie Britton), and then, after a delay, the hostage negotiator (the final big screen appearance of the great Michael Kenneth Williams). Brian and the negotiator form a quick human connection that is contrasted with the macho SWAT team leader played by Jeffrey Donovan and his world class condescending smirk. Brian is likely the most sympathetic stick-up man you’ll ever see. What we quickly realize is that the movie is a bit manipulative in making its point that the VA is the villain here, but some tremendous work by the actors keeps us engaged and caring about Brian. His interactions with Rosa and Estel are terrific, and the chats with Williams’ negotiator are even better. All four actors go above the material, and Ms. Beharie is a standout. Additionally, this is one final reminder of how Michael Kenneth Williams made every role his own, and every show and movie just a bit better.

Opening in theaters on August 26, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


BEAST (2022)

August 18, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Movies featuring man versus beast date back to at least 1933 with KING KONG, and have proven to be fan favorites many times since, likely peaking with JAWS in 1975. Of course, this sub-genre has also produced too many flops to count as low-budget filmmakers have attempted to capitalize with the cheap-thrills approach to entertainment. Director Baltasar Kormakur has previously flashed his skill with nature thrillers ADRIFT (2018) and EVEREST (2015), and here he’s working from a script and story by Ryan Engle (NON-STOP, 2014) and Jaime Premak Sullivan (BREAKING IN, 2018). It’s tempting to call this one ‘Cujo as a lion’, as a tip of the cap to the 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s horror-novel, but there are many reasons not to do so.

Idris Elba plays Dr Nate Samuels, a man taking his daughters to the African savannah area where he met their mother many years prior. The mom recently passed away from the effects of cancer, and since mom and dad had separated the year before, there is tension between dad and daughters, especially the eldest, Meredith (“call me Mere”), who holds him responsible for not being there for mom. Mere is played by Iyana Halley, and younger sister Norah is played by Leah Jeffries. We quickly learn these are smart girls, spoiled by privilege and dumbfounded at the lack of Wi-Fi and cell phone coverage miles from nowhere.

Nate’s old buddy Martin (Sharlto Copley) manages the protection of local wildlife and will act as their guide. One of the first sequences we see is poachers wiping out a pride of lions. However, they missed the alpha male and he is now out for revenge against all poachers … only he, like so many these days, can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. This puts Nate and the girls in danger, especially after Martin is seriously injured. Director Kormakur pulls the old “Jaws” trick by keeping the lion out of sight for a while, building suspense. Once he begins attacking, the lion is in full view for much of the film. Of course, lions are wild animals and cannot be trained to act, so what we really see are computer-generated lions with terrific growling sound effects.

The lion attacks are ferocious and do provide a certain level of fun tension with numerous jump-scares, and many will find this sufficient for movie entertainment. However, for those who want a bit more, the plot, dialogue and character decisions are often absurd and ludicrous – generating laughter where they shouldn’t. Despite much of this being computer-generated, the work of Oscar winning cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot (A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, 1992) should be noted … it looks and feels like we are in the wild bush. The four main actors are fine, although Mr. Elba’s contemplative physician transforming into quasi-superhero is a bit difficult to take. Mere’s donning a JURASSIC PARK t-shirt is a nice try, but this one has more in common with Liam Neeson fighting off wolves in THE GREY (2017).

Opens in theaters on August 19, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE RUNNER (2022)

August 18, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Drugs continue to destroy lives despite this being 40 years past when Nancy Reagan first counselled folks to ‘Just say no’. Not surprisingly, an ad campaign had little effect in the war against illicit drugs that immediately made people feel better (regardless of the long-term impact). Before and since that era, there have been countless films with storylines depicting the negative side of drugs – violence, gang activity, broken families, shattered dreams, failing health, and death. The drug stories that work best are those that narrow the focus and zero in on a personal story, and that’s what director Michelle Danner and screenwriter Jason Chase Tyrrell have done here.

French-Finnish actor Edouard Philipponnat (HOUSE OF GUCCI, 2021) stars as Aiden, a high school student riding high (yes, that’s a pun) thanks to the drug business he and his buddy Blake (Nadji Jeter) have carved out on campus. Aiden charms his way through school hallways mingling just long enough for business with students and even teachers. Aiden doesn’t exactly maintain a low profile by hopping in his $100k Mercedes SUV or skipping classes or showing up late and high to track practice.

Aiden’s mom (Elisabeth Rohm, AMERICAN HUSTLE, 2013) arranges to have local Detective Wall (Cameron Douglas) put a scare into him by threatening arrest. Aiden’s belligerent attitude forces an arrest, and Detective Wall offers him a deal … wear a wire for a sting on big time dealer and supplier ‘Local Legend’ (Eric Balfour), and Aiden won’t be tried as an adult. Even though he is furious at his mother, she admits this was “for his own good” and she “didn’t know what else to do.” In addition to this, Aiden is carrying the burden of an incident with his ex-girlfriend, Layla (Kerri Medders). Bottom line, Aiden is living a harrowing life and he’s on a downward spiral. He reacts by turning more to the drugs he peddles.

The crescendo occurs at a house party Aiden throws while his mom is traveling on business, although we wonder why this very nice house doesn’t have security cameras so mom can keep an eye on things. The evening doesn’t go as planned for Aiden, Local Legend, or the cops, but we do get an unexpected ending with a nice touch – and a flash of the Norman Rockwell painting, “Runaway.”

Director Michelle Danner has built a reputation as a top acting coach (and for her work on stage) and she coaxes a nice performance out of up-and-comer Philipponnat, who reminds of another actor in his age group, Charlie Plummer from LEAN ON PETE (2017). Philipponnat will next appear in Ridley Scott’s film NAPOLEON, scheduled for release in 2023. Cameron Douglas, who plays high-strung Detective Wall, is the son of Oscar winner Michael Douglas, although his mannerisms are more similar to his grandfather, legendary actor Kirk Douglas. The film breaks one of my pet peeves which is casting actors much too old for high schoolers; however, the subject matter here calls for some flexibility. Ms. Danner’s direction and Mr. Philipponnat’s performance move them both into the ‘keep an eye on’ category.

On a fun note: If you happen to be looking for a new drinking game, try the one for each time Philipponnat’s Aiden runs his fingers through his hair due to the stress of the moment.

Releasing in theaters on August 19, 2022 and on digital and On Demand on August 23, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER