Tag Archives: C+

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY

Producers: Ram Bergman and Rian Johnson   Director: Rian Johnson   Screenplay: Rian Johnson   Cast: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Ethan Hawke, Noah Segan, Jackie Hoffman and Dallas Roberts   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: C+

In a Zoom conversation near the start of Rian Johnson’s sequel to his surprise smash “Knives Out,” two of the participants appearing on the computer screen of tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton) are Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim.  Their presence is a clue to what “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” aspires to be.  On the one hand it’s meant as an Agatha Christie-style detective tale—after all, in “Murder She Wrote” Lansbury was effectively a modern-day Miss Marple.  Sondheim’s presence might be construed as just a nod to her seminal performance in “Sweeney Todd,” but it’s really much more.  The great Broadway composer-lyricist was also a puzzle aficionado, and collaboration with the like-minded Anthony Perkins wrote “The Last of Sheila,” Herbert Ross’s 1973 film that, with its Mediterranean setting and wickedly convoluted murder plot, was no doubt an inspiration for Johnson.

But this is a “Knives Out” mystery, and so the detective is the famed Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who’s among the guests invited, via a complicated box puzzle, to an elite bash on Bron’s private Greek island, the Glass Onion—so called from a magnificent transparent globe atop the main building (which also houses his prize sports car) in 2019, just as the pandemic has taken hold.  But there’s a mysterious element at once—Bron claims not to have invited him at all.

Nonetheless he joins the other guests, who, thanks to a special spray administered by Bron’s aide (Ethan Hawke), can go mask-less for the duration.  All are in some sense so-called disrupters, and to some extent dependent on Bron’s largesse.  There’s Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), an ordinary housewife promoted as battling corruption and running for the Senate. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a muscled, crudely macho internet sensation who totes his gun even when swimming and is joined by his bosomy young girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), while ditzy Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is an erstwhile supermodel and designer of a popular brand of sweatpants; she’s accompanied by her aide Peg (Jessica Henwick).  Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is a brilliant scientist employed by Bron.

There’s one guest who, like Blanc, is unexpected—Cassandra, or Andi, Brand (Janelle Monáe), Bron’s former business partner.  She was swindled in a hostile breakup of their partnership and thought unlikely to accept his invitation to come and work out their problems.  But she has.

Bron announces his intention to amuse the motley crew, like the host in “Sheila,” with a game.  Here it’s the old murder ploy: Bron will be the victim, and it will be up to the “survivors” to identify the perpetrator.  (The game devised by James Coburn in the Sondheim-Perkins concoction was more cerebral and clever.)  Naturally a real murder does occur, instigating a process of ratiocination on Blanc’s part that results in the revelation of the culprit and a kind of justice.

It would be unfair to reveal anything about the intricacies of the plot, save to say that Johnson takes advantage of lots of flashbacks and repetition of scenes from different perspectives to fashion an ultra-complicated scenario to defy solution by viewers, though not, of course, by Blanc.  Truth be told, he also indulges in a couple of hoary tricks that connoisseurs of detective fiction would sneer at, deeming them cheats; and despite his best efforts, the explosive conclusion comes as a bit of a letdown.

In the end, however, that probably won’t bother most viewers overmuch.  They’ll be content to be flummoxed by the twists and turns, and by the game efforts of the cast, even though they’re playing one-note caricatures.  Craig certainly seems to relish adopting a broad accent as the shamus whose air of reticence abruptly vanishes when he springs forward with a brilliant conclusion, and whose sense of dandified style is almost as complete as Poirot’s.  It’s also good to see Norton in a major role again; his film appearances have been too rare of late.  He makes Bron a complete douchebag, the very essence of the sort of disgustingly acquisitive self-styled genius so much in the news nowadays.  The picture is also visually eye-catching, with an elegant production design by Rick Heinrichs and colorful costumes by Jenny Eagen, all caught in sumptuous images by cinematographer Steve Yedlin.  Bob Ducsay’s editing helps to keep the plot’s swerves fair even though at well over two hours the film is too long, and Nathan Johnson’s score doesn’t push the wink-wink level beyond endurance.

Yet despite its many felicities, this sequel is less of a Thanksgiving treat than its predecessor was three years ago.  In part that’s the result of the familiarity of the formula, but also of an overblown approach that increases the feeling of artificiality and smugness.  As a puzzle “Onion” passes muster, but while one can admire the ingeniousness of the clockwork mechanism Johnson sets running here, as it counts down it proves to be less fun than it should. 

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER

Producers: Kevin Feige and Nate Moore   Director: Ryan Coogler   Screenplay: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole   Cast: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Martin Freeman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Alex Livinalli, Mabel Cadena, Isaach De Bankolé, Danny Sapani, Dorothy Steel, Zainab Jah, Richard Schiff and Gigi Bermingham   Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures

Grade: C+

Ryan Coogler had a couple of major objectives in crafting, along with his co-writer Joe Robert Cole, a sequel to the 2018 smash “Black Panther.”  One was paying proper tribute to Chadwick Boseman, the extraordinary young actor who played the title character, and whose untimely death cast a pall over the very idea of continuing the series.  The second was fashioning a rousing adventure movie in the Marvel mode.  With “Wakanda Forever” he’s succeeded better in achieving the first goal than the second.

The film opens with the Marvel logo transformed with images of Boseman as T’Challa, the Black Panther, and the entire first sequence is devoted to an elaborate funeral service for the recently-deceased, deeply mourned king; the grief it expresses, despite the festive street carnival that’s part of the ritual, feels as much for Boseman as for the character he played.  The pain of the loss suffuses everything that follows, and at the end the celebration of the actor/hero’s life is taken up pictorially once again.  Even the sole added scene in the closing credits is a revelation of a hitherto unknown aspect of T’Challa’s legacy.

Within this simultaneously mournful and laudatory remembrance of T’Challa and Boseman, new dangers erupt for Wakanda with its protector now gone.  They revolve, of course around vibranium, the metal that is the source of the country’s power.  Other nations are seeking it, sometimes employing violent methods.  T’Challa’s mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who has assumed the rule, is confronted by an attempt, apparently by the United States and France, to take over a Wakandan “outreach center” in Mali to gain access to the treasure.  The effort is foiled by Okoye (Danai Gurira), the redoubtable head of Wakanda’s all-female security detail, and Ramonda confronts those countries’ representatives at the United Nations (Richard Schiff and Gigi Bermingham) to imperiously warn them that such efforts against her nation’s interests will be dealt with forcefully.

But the outside world’s lust for vibranium extends beyond Wakanda.  A vibranium detector fashioned by Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a brilliant young science student at MIT, indicates a deposit of it In the ocean depths, and an American expedition under the direction of yet another noted scientist (Lake Bell) is out to find and extract it.  Unfortunately it serves as the power source for the underwater realm of Talokan, a descendant of the Mayan Empire inhabited by greenish-bluish folk who might have migrated from Pandora.  Their leader Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), with pointy ears and winged feet, also seen as the ancient feathered serpent god K’uk’ulkan, orders his army of soldiers and sirens to attack the interloper rig, which they do most effectively.

But Namor, the so-called Sub-Mariner of the Marvel comics stable, knows that efforts to subvert his realm are unlikely to cease.  So he travels to Wakanda, popping up from a lake to propose to the grieving Ramonda and her science-minded daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright) that Wakanda and Talokan join forces to eliminate the nations that endanger both realms.  His destructive, antiheroic proposal has some justification: as a youth back in the sixteenth century (played by Manuel Chavez), he watched the brutality inflicted on the indigenous peoples, including his own human mother (Irma-Estel Laguerre), by the imperialist Spaniards, and knows what such conquerors are capable of.  But Ramonda and Shuri reject such a plan, especially since Namor couples it with a threat against their nation should they turn down his proposed alliance.

What follows is an elaborate combination of political, military and personal drama.  Shuri and Okoye travel to Boston to recruit (some might say kidnap) Riri and bring her to Wakanda.  There they encounter their old friend, CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), using him to get information about American intentions, which causes him to fall afoul of the agency’s director, his ex-wife (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).  They also call back to Wakanda T’Challa’s onetime lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), one of the Wakandan intelligence agents (or War Dogs), who has been living at an orphanage-school in an improbably idyllic Haiti.  And there are scads of additional Wakandan and Talokan figures—warriors and civilians—who are fitted into the scenario, many of whom are (or will now become) part of the gallery of characters memorized by extreme MCU fans.  Among those who are most notable are gruff M’Baku (Winston Duke), the audience-pleasing leader of the Jabari tribe whose bellicosity often takes a humorous turn, and Aneka (Michaela Coel), a Wakandan warrior with a special link to Okoye.

The thrust of the plot, however, becomes the conflict between Talokan and Wakanda: the underwater realm attacks with what appears to be a tidal wave, while the Wakandans return fire from a huge airship on which are heroic figures with powers and special suits contrived by Shuri and Riri.  (Without revealing too much, can you say Black Pantheress?)  The battle scenes are spectacularly mounted, but repetitive and prolonged, stretching the film to a running-time pushing well past two-and-a-half hours.  Of course, in the end it all comes down to one-on-one combat between Namor and a Wakandan whose identity will not be revealed here.

As with all of the MCU pictures, “Wakanda Forever” is efficiently manufactured from a technical perspective, with Hannah Beachler’s production design, Ruth Carter’s costumes and Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s cinematography all impressive, especially in the sequences set in Talokan, which have a magical shimmering tone.  The visual effects, supervised by Geoffrey Baumann and produced by Nicole Rowley respectively, are state-of-the art, and the music score by Ludwig Göransson employs African motifs to excellent effect.  One could ask for a tauter approach in the editing by Michael P. Shawver, Kelley Dixon and Jennifer Lame, but we seem to have gotten to the point where MCU devotees expect a lot of bloat and might feel cheated if they were handed a trim two-hour movie.

Within the limits of the genre, the acting is fine across the board, with some contributions that are exceptional.  Bassett gives Ramonda truly regal intensity, and Huerta is an imposing presence as the good-bad Namor.  Nyong’o and Gurira repeat their reliable work from the previous film, as does Duke.  But it’s Wright who makes the greatest impression as the royal sister torn between a desire to follow in the footsteps of her deceased brother or, perhaps, turn to a Wakandan dark side, represented by an superstar from the first film making an uncredited cameo appearance.  If there’s a weakness here, it’s Thorne, not in terms of the actress, who’s fine, but the role, which seems largely extraneous, a means of pandering to the youth audience.  (The emphasis on her car is especially irritating.)

“Wakanda Forever” can be admired for its ambition, but it’s grindingly melancholy, with no sense of joy: the crushing mood of grief, as well as the emphasis on pointless, murderous conflict, make it difficult to enjoy on an elemental superhero level.  That it will be a huge success financially goes without saying; but one suspects in coming years it will be recalled with respect rather than affection, especially in comparison to its predecessor.