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

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THE GRAY MAN (2022)

July 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. You’ve likely heard, and maybe used, the old adage, “everything but the kitchen sink.” It’s typically meant to emphasize the inclusion of many unrelated and often unnecessary elements into a conversation or event. It also provides a description of the strategy filmmaking brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have taken with the action sequences in the highest budget Netflix original movie to date. Of course the Russo brothers have directed numerous Marvel movies, including AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), so subtlety is never anticipated in their films. If you are curious to know what kind of kitchen sink you get for $200 million, Anthony and Joe show us: lots of guns, a global trek to various countries, more big guns, plenty of characters – some relevant, some not, even larger guns and weapons, lots of rayon, and the destruction of a town square in Prague.

Fans of turbo-charged action films such as the John Wick and Jason Bourne films will likely be quite satisfied with the set pieces, stunts, and manic gun fights and fist fights that are packed into a two-hour run time. There is so much bouncing around the globe that it’s kind of difficult to keep up – especially since there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for all of the globetrotting (well, other than it’s pretty unusual). I couldn’t keep track of every locale, but we definitely visited Bangkok, Austria, Croatia, and Czechoslovakia. And that’s beyond Washington, D.C., and Langley, where we spend time in dark offices.

Co-director Joe Russo co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Russo Brothers collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and it was adapted from Mark Greany’s novel (the first in a series). Ryan Gosling stars as Court Gentry, codename Sierra Six, a CIA black ops hit man recruited directly from prison by veteran CIA agent Donald Fitzroy (Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton). This is Gosling’s first movie in 4 years (FIRST MAN, 2018) and it’s nice to have him back in a role that will recertify his ‘man card’ before next year’s BARBIE movie. As you might expect, Gosling’s Six is cool as a cucumber, popping off quips, and stoic in the face of adversity. In fact, much is made of his character’s ‘street cred’, despite most every scene involving colossal mistakes, should-be death encounters, and enough mayhem to make Allstate jealous. Six is so cool that he has less reaction to being shot or stabbed than I have when I stub my toe on the leg of the bed.

When Six’s mission goes awry due to his human compassion, three things happen. First, Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) bails him out (the first of a few). Second, his target gives him advice and the always mysterious thumb drive with incriminating evidence; and third, his corrupt station chief, Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page, “Bridgerton”) throws a tantrum and hires a psychopath to track down Six and eliminate him. The psychopath is Lloyd Hansen played by Chris Evans, sporting an evil mustache and resort casual attire. It seems Mr. Evans is having fun with the villainous role that he hopes will put distance between his career and the Captain America role he has embodied for more than a decade. The argument could be made that he overplays his hand here, but he does get to spout the already infamous line, “If you want to make an omelet, you gotta kill some people”.

Other players here include the always terrific Alfre Woodard as a former station chief, Jessica Henwick (Bugs from THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS), Dhanush as yet another hired assassin, Shea Whigham in flashbacks, and Julia Butters as the ‘damsel in distress’. You might recall Ms. Butters’ scene-stealing turn as the precocious child actor in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD. This film’s title is derived from the term for a CIA operative who effectively moves around without being noticed or remembered (the opposite of a Kardashian). The ironic thing is that Gosling’s Six is almost never undetected. He is frequently in fights, shootouts, car chases, and either causing or escaping explosions. Even the Russo’s “gray” lacks subtlety! It makes perfect sense that the film’s cinematographer, Stephen F Windon, is best known for his work on multiple entries in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Here he employs some supersonic drone shots in order to add further hyper-activity to the proceedings. Again, this one is for extreme action fans, not those looking for a brainy spy-thriller.

Opens in theaters on July 15, 2022 and on Netflix beginning July 22, 2022

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THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (2021)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. One could view being number four in a trilogy as similar to being the ‘third wheel’ on a date. Or one could view it as a new beginning, with a familiar foundation. Your way of viewing will likely depend on whether you choose the red pill or the blue one. This time out, it’s only writer-director Lana Wachowski, without her sister Lilly. Their groundbreaking first film in the series hit screens in 1999, and it’s been 18 years since the last. Lana co-wrote this script with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon.

There is a stunning opening action sequence that is so well done, most will feel like it alone is worth the price of a ticket. But it’s another of the early scenes that really caught my attention and had me laugh out loud and applaud the audacity. Keanu Reeves stars (again) as Thomas Anderson, a renowned game developer best known for his award-winning games (actually a trilogy) ‘The Matrix’ from 20 years ago. His work on a new game called ‘Binary’ is interrupted when he’s summoned to the office of his boss played by Jonathan Groff. Anderson is informed that Warner Brothers, their corporate owner, is not interested in his new game, but instead demands another game in ‘The Matrix’ series. This is either self-parody or Lana’s passive-aggressive revenge, either of which is a bit humorous.

Anderson regularly battles the blurring lines of reality and sees a psychiatrist (Neil Patrick Harris) who prescribes blue (of course) pills to help the patient deal with daily life. There is no way I’m going into the story lines that are tossed around here, but there will be fans who are happy and fans who aren’t. In fact, this one teases with so many elements that are left hanging, we aren’t sure whether Lana is setting the stage for more to come or merely having fun stirring the pot.

What does matter is that Neo and Trinity get the shot at a legitimate relationship/romance. The return of Carrie-Ann Moss is treated with all due respect. She shows off her acting skills, which, let’s face it, are far superior to the lead actor here. Together they make an interesting couple and we pull for things to work out. Jada Pinkett Smith returns as Niobe, and some new characters are introduced as well. In addition to Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris, the most intriguing of these is Jessica Henwick as Bugs (like Bunny). The newly imagined Morpheus is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas scores a couple of scenes as Sati. Oh, and the answer is a definitive yes – we do miss Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne (despite some of Lana’s creativity).

Neo and Trinity and special effects are the real draw for the series, and though this one is littered with self-parody, one of the most disappointing elements comes in the fight scenes which fall short of expectations. While I enjoyed the multiple story lines, even the partial bits, it’s the big finale action sequence that had me convinced the shark had officially been jumped. It’s drawn out far too long and repetitive at times, and with the 2 and a half hour run time, you have earned the right to question “The One”.

Opening in theaters and on HBO Max on December 22, 2021

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UNDERWATER (2020)

January 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an “X-Files” look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by … in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven’t finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yep, that’s almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That’s really our only set-up … unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It’s literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It’s wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won’t all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn’t know that … but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has “terror” in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It’s the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options … and are being chased by something they can’t identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It’s in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He’s obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine … he’s even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the “smallest” of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits – a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart’s slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron’s classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as “Underwater Alien”. Of course, this film isn’t nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one … but then few are.

Mr. Eubank’s film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it’s really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a nice job in keeping with the ‘play it straight’ approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn’t go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn’t do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.

watch the trailer: