‘Glass Onion’ – Another Ingenious Film From the ‘Knives Out’ Filmmaker

Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion” is one of those movies I would love to analyze in every single way. It is so cleverly constructed to where I want to know how he went about writing the screenplay. Putting a mystery like this together cannot be the least bit easy because nothing this ingenious comes to any filmmaker easily, and I have to believe Johnson had this story percolating in his brain for many years before it became a reality. This film has several layers viewers will have plenty of fun peeling away at, and the misdirections it employs are wonderfully insidious in a way Ben Shapiro will never be able to appreciate like any intelligent audience member can.

On top of being named after a classic Beatles song, “Glass Onion” is also Johnson’s sequel to “Knives Out.” Or, more correctly, it is a standalone sequel as the only actor returning from “Knives Out” is Daniel Craig who returns to play private detective Benoit Blanc. This time, Benoit has found himself invited to the private island of the billionaire co-founder of the technology company Alpha, Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Miles has brought together a group of his friends together on his island in Greece to play a murder mystery game, and they include Alpha head scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), controversial fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) who is accompanied by her harried assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), and men’s rights streamer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) who is accompanied by his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). But the most controversial guest of all is Andi Brand (Janelle Monae), the other co-founder of Alpha who was ousted from this group a long time ago, and yet she appears here to everyone’s utter shock.

Still, none of this deters Miles from getting his guests to solve the murder mystery he has in store for them. There is, however, one catch. The murder everyone needs to solve is Miles’, and it is here my friends that I refuse to tell you anymore about the story. To do so would ruin an insidiously good time you are bound to have while watching this.

Having seen “Knives Out,” I was tempted to believe I knew which direction Johnson was going to take the audience in with this follow up. But after a good twenty or so minutes, he pulls the rug out right from under us to where I really did not know where things would be heading. While it might seem obvious as to who will get murdered, it is actually not in the slightest. And once the first murder is committed, you become every bit as inquisitive and fearful as the other characters because no one can ever feel safe on this island from there.

Watching “Glass Onion,” I kept wondering what inspirations fueled Johnson to write and construct this screenplay with. Surely he could not have come up with all of this on how own, or did he? Did he read a lot of mystery novels by Agatha Christie and Gregory McDonald? Even I have to catch up with all those “Fletch” novels which I keep promising to myself I will read someday. Watching everything come together is a sheer blast as I kept thinking the fun could only last for so long until everything falls apart. But nothing ever fell apart for me as all the story elements seem to fit together perfectly in a way they never could have in all those “Saw” movies.

The average Pixar movie has so many easter eggs to where watching them once can never be enough. “Glass Onion” is no different as there are so many things you have to keep an eye out for, and the number of name drops of famous people throughout feels endless. There is also a plethora of cameos here which are too good to spoil here as they come out of nowhere, and the one involving Benoit’s partner in life is truly priceless.

I believe Craig’s role as Benoit Blanc may eventually supersede his most famous role to date as James Bond since he is clearly having far more fun playing this character than he ever did as 007 (seriously, just ask Dave Bautista). While playing a British spy may have forced this actor to act within certain boundaries, writer/director Johnson is more than willing to let him turn loose as a private investigator who is a mix of Jacques Clouseau and Sherlock Holmes. The joy of Craig’s performance is that he keeps you guessing as to whether he will solve a crime by sheer accident, or if he will actually deduce who the guilty person is before anyone else can.

The rest of the “Glass Onion” cast prove to be as game as the cast of “Knives Out,” and this did not surprise me in the slightest. Kate Hudson channels her mother Goldie Hawn’s character from “Overboard” here as Birdie Jay, and it is nice to see here in a motion picture which is as deserving of her talents as “Almost Famous” was. Kathryn Hahn brought her sublime and harried comedic talents as Governor Claire Debella here, and her constant exasperation proves to be a continued joy. Bautista once again proves there is much more to him than his character of Drax in those “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies in his portrayal of YouTube star Duke Cody, and that’s even though we should have known this after seeing him in “Blade Runner 2049.” And there is no ignoring Edward Norton who makes tech billionaire Miles Bron into every bit the bumbling manager Elon Musk has proven to be when it comes to Twitter. Of course, this is nothing more than an amazing coincidence as Johnson started writing this movie long before the Tesla visionary even thought about buying the internet app James Woods used to go apeshit on.

But the one performance worth singling out in “Glass Onion” is the one given by Janelle Monae. She portrays Andi Brand, but her role proves to be far more complex than at first glance asshe has to sell us on different facets of an individual we did not walk into the theater expecting to see. Again, I do not want to give anything away, but Monae has more to do here than the other actors, and the fact she pulls this off is beyond admirable as it makes her work look all the more impressive.

You know, when you look at Rian Johnson’s filmography, he has always appeared to be a mystery buff of sorts. His breakthrough movie, “Brick,” was a neo-noir mystery, but while his next film, “The Brothers Bloom,” was more of a caper, it still featured characters searching for answers which constantly elude them. The same goes with my favorite Johnson movie to date, “Looper,” as well as “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in which characters we know or don’t know are trying to find some way to silence the chaos which constantly disrupts their seemingly peaceful existence.

Taking this into account, I cannot wait to see where Johnson and Craig take this franchise next. Thanks to the deal they have with Netflix, we can expect at least one more “Knives Out” installment in the future, and maybe there will be even more following that. Like James Cameron with his “Avatar” movies, Johnson and company are not about us to give us the same exact thing twice.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Deepwater Horizon

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It appears director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are on their way to completing a trilogy of movies which aim to show audiences how Americans stand up and take care of their own during the most trying of times. In 2013 they gave us “Lone Survivor” which dramatized the unsuccessful United States Navy SEALs counter-insurgent mission Operation Red Wings, and before 2016 ends we will get “Patriots Day” which deals with the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent terrorist manhunt. But before that we get “Deepwater Horizon” which focuses on the offshore drilling rig of the same name which exploded in 2010 and created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. As you can expect, it is a riveting motion picture which provides audiences with a visceral experience even though we know how the story will end.

Wahlberg portrays Mike Williams, one of the chief rig workers on Deepwater Horizon, and as the movie starts we see him spending precious time with his beautiful wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter. Before he leaves to go to work for a couple of weeks, Mike’s daughter shows him a science project she is working on which involves poking a hole in the bottom of a Coke can and then stuffing it up with honey. But, of course, it explodes all over the family dinner table as it foreshadows the terrible disaster which is yet to come.

Berg does great work portraying the working environment these oil rig workers endure on a daily basis as their work is always dangerous, and their animosity towards the executives of BP and Halliburton, a company whose name has long since become a four-letter word, is completely understandable. While these workers aim to do their job safely, the execs are eager to increase their profits as the drilling schedule has fallen behind by forty days. Profit always seems to reign supreme over the rights of the workers who might never reach the level of the 1%, and this is further proof of how the 80’s never left us.

The foreshadowing of the explosion becomes a little too much as Berg employs Steve Jablonsky’s music score to an unnecessary degree. Jablonsky’s score booms way too much as we watch the beginnings of this explosion which emanate far below the ocean’s surface. It alerts us way too early that a natural disaster is about to occur, and this could have instead been a time where we could have seen proof of how silence is golden because, as Gary Oldman’s character from “The Professional” said, we like these quiet little moments before the storm, and that’s regardless of whether or not it reminds us of the Ludwig Van Beethoven’s music.

When things do go horrifically bad on the rig, Berg captures it in a way which feels horrific and almost unbearable as he captures the disaster with a lot of handheld footage. When the main pipe goes bust, it’s not like your average disaster movie where things go out of control but in a not so dangerous way. Bodies are flung with full force against metal railings, and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to feel how painful the deaths and injuries on display are. To say what happened here was a natural disaster is an understatement as the chemicals underneath the earth’s surface make their way to the surface to where it feels like planet is having serious revenge on us.

Wahlberg is an actor who can authentically portray a blue collar worker without any movie star swagger. With a role like Mike Williams, he never ever lets his ego get the best of him or tries to show off in some obnoxious way. You may never lose sight of the fact you are watching Mark Wahlberg on the big screen, but he always succeeds in portraying a character who spends his days doing hard work for an honest living. Not many actors of his stature can pull that off these days.

Then we have Kurt Russell, a veteran actor you can never ever go wrong with, who plays Jimmy Harrell, the man who is very serious about ensuring the safety of his workers. The oil company’s profits may suffer, but that is the least of Jimmy’s problems. Russell makes it clear from the get go where Jimmy’s priorities lie, and you never doubt him for a second. Even when Jimmy suffers greatly from the rig’s explosion to where one of his eyes is swollen shut, which quickly reminds us of Russell’s role as Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” he is still infinitely determined to ensure the safety of his workers.

Another standout performance to be found in “Deepwater Horizon” comes from Gina Rodriguez who plays Andrea Fleytas, an oil rig worker prepared to do what’s necessary to save lives but is stopped by the men who somehow think they know better. Rodriguez throws herself into the role to where you never doubt her for a second, and it makes you all the angrier when she is admonished by her superiors who are afraid to make decisions under pressure. She certainly knows her way around an oil rig better than her beat up Mustang.

As for Kate Hudson, she does fine work with an underwritten role. As Felicia, she has to be stuck at home and worried sick about her husband and the situation on the rig, so we only get to see so much of her in this movie. However, her role is an important one as she puts a human face on those who have to suffer from a distance. Besides, it is so nice to see Hudson in a good movie after she appeared in the cinematic monstrosity that was “Mother’s Day.”

But the biggest star of “Deepwater Horizon” is Berg as he thrusts into a real life story with gusto and intensity. As a director, he has never been one to give us a decent time at the movies. Whether it’s “The Rundown,” “Lone Survivor” or “The Kingdom,” Berg wants us pinned to our seats and gasping for air. He achieves this once again with “Deepwater Horizon,” and in the process pays tribute to those who lost their lives while doing their jobs. It makes me look forward to his next movie, “Patriots Day,” all the more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day” is the kind of movie I feared “The Meddler” would be, a formulaic comedy filled with overused stereotypes and cinematic traps filmmakers easily fall victim to. But even though it was directed by Garry Marshall who is well known for overdoing sentimentality in his films, nothing prepared me for how cloying and utterly contrived this movie ended up being. It’s like a network sitcom which never made it pass the pilot stage but somehow got turned into a movie for no discernable reason. Having already laid waste to New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, Marshall shows no hesitation in belittling another holiday, and one with much more meaning than others.

The movie starts, of course, a few days before Mother’s Day which allows us to meet a group of people who at first have little, if any, connection with one another, but we know this is going to change from the get go. There’s single mother Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) who’s raising her two young boys by herself while her ex-husband Henry (Timothy Olyphant) spends time with his new wife Tina (Shay Mitchell) who looks like she has yet to reach the age of 30. Next we have successful book writer Miranda (Julia Roberts) whom we see selling jewelry on television and is dedicated to her career more than anything else. Then there is Kristin (Britt Robertson) who lives with her boyfriend Zack (Jack Whitehall) and their baby girl. Zack is an aspiring comedian who longs to marry Kristin, but she feels not yet ready to commit for reasons which eventually become clear. And let’s not forget Jesse (Kate Hudson), wife to Indian doctor Russell (Aasif Mandvi) who knows her parents will never approve of him or her sister who has since come out as gay.

Oh yeah, there’s also the grieving widower Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) whose wife died while serving in the military overseas, and he is left to raise their daughters on his own. The women at the fitness club he works at are eager to set him up with somebody, but he is hesitant to start dating again. And then he runs into Sandy at the local supermarket and… well, you have a pretty good idea of what happens from there.

What bothered me so much about “Mother’s Day” was how cloying and artificial the whole movie felt. Granted, not every movie can feature down to earth characters in relatable situations like “The Meddler” did, but everything here felt so one-dimensional and done by the numbers. Marshall has directed great movies in the past like “The Flamingo Kid,” “Nothing in Common” and “Pretty Women” which turned Julia Roberts into a movie star, and he’s the same guy who gave us the television classics “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy.” I even have good things to say about “The Princess Diaries” which introduced Anne Hathaway to the world. But after all these years, you’d think he would be able to give us a movie filled with more than standard situations and cardboard-cutout characters. I refuse to deride his horrible direction as the result of old age because that’s just cruel, but he has done so much better than this tripe.

It’s a real shame because the cast is great and they do their best with material which is far beneath them. Aniston is wonderful as a single mom, and that’s even though her work here doesn’t compare to her underappreciated performances in “The Good Girl” and “Cake.” Sudeikis has proven, in a way he should not have had to, how he can be a strong actor thanks to his performance in “Race,” and he’s wasted here in a role he is far more believable in than many would expect. Hudson, who has attracted mediocre material ever since her star-making turn in “Almost Famous,” does look very relaxed in her performance which gives us hope she will eventually star in a movie worthy of her talents.

But if there’s anyone in “Mother’s Day” who pulls off a truly emotionally honest performance, let alone a powerful moment, it’s Roberts. The scene where she explains to her daughter why she gave her up for adoption proves to be more heart-rending than what the rest of the movie ever could have promised us, and it reminds us why she remains a beloved movie star after all these years. Never mind how the situation is completely contrived as it is presented here. Roberts plays it with a lot of heart and wins us over regardless of how bad this movie truly is.

It’s a shame to see Mandvi, so great on “The Daily Show,” playing nothing more than an Indian stereotype who just happens to be a doctor. Loni Love plays Kimberly, an African-American who is taking pole dancing classes but fumbles them as she is overweight. Kimberly proves to be as funny a character as any Eddie Murphy played in “Norbit,” and no one should mistake this as a compliment. The more Marshall relies on stereotypes, the more this movie sinks into an abyss of awfulness.

But the actors I felt sorriest for were Margo Martindale and Robert Pine who played Jesse’s parents in the movie. They are presented as a couple of very conservative parents who are about to wake up to just how liberal their daughters are. Of course, they are shocked by the love partners their daughters have chosen to spend their lives with, but that they eventually come to accept their decisions in life as well as their grandchildren comes across as no surprise whatsoever. Martindale in particular is a tremendous actress, so her role here feels like an enormous waste of her time as she is forced to portray a type rather than an actual character.

The more I watched “Mother’s Day,” the more nauseous I became. This is such an emotionally manipulative movie that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This movie has a running time of two hours, and it became increasingly torturous the longer it goes on. While it may have its heart in the right place, it still feels like a gigantic insult to the intelligence. Surely everyone involved with this crap could have come up with something infinitely better, right?

“Mother’s Day” is meant to give tribute to all the mothers out there, but there are so many other movies out there like this which put this one to shame. Regardless of its intentions, it is inescapably awful and deserving of the derision bound to come its way. If you are going to take your mother to a movie this year, take her to see “The Meddler” instead. Taking her to see “Mother’s Day” won’t seem all that different from taking her to see the camp classic “Mommie Dearest” or Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” and that’s saying a lot.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

½* out of * * * *