GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) – Mystery Comedy Sequel As Superficial and Contrived As First Film

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Full disclosure: I was not a fan of the first KNIVES OUT (2019) movie. While most people loved this mystery comedy, I found it all too contrived and superficial to really enjoy.

So, if you liked the first movie, you probably will enjoy its sequel, GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) more than I did, because I didn’t like this one either, as I once again found it too contrived and superficial to enjoy.

It also rolls out some pretty awful characters, a group of friends who call themselves the disruptors and are about as enjoyable as a migraine headache, and we’re supposed to care if one of them is murdered? We just saw this same issue in the recent Santa Claus action-comedy VIOLENT NIGHT (2022) which featured some of the worst characters I’ve seen in a movie in quite a while. Well, the characters in this movie are equally as awful. Both sets are uber rich, so that seems to be becoming a thing, writing super rich annoying characters, but in both these cases, they were written so poorly that they don’t come off as real people but as caricatures.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY, which premiered on Netflix this weekend, once again stars Daniel Craig, reprising his role from the first movie as the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc. He may be the world’s greatest detective, but he’s got the world’s worst Southern accent. Craig’s attempt at a Southern drawl grated on me in the first movie, and it’s no better this time around. Craig is the only cast member from the first movie to return, as a new all-star cast plays a brand-new set of suspects, murderers, and victims.

This time around, a group of friends and business associates all travel to the private island of their brilliant friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Which gives this one a similar opening and feel to a much better movie from a few weeks back, THE MENU (2022), when a group of rich guests traveled to the private island of famed Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and who also found themselves in harm’s way. THE MENU is a much, much better movie than GLASS ONION.

So, Bron has a controversial business proposition for his guests, one that would instigate all of them for numerous reasons of their own to do him in. Plus, to make things more “fun,” he has set up the island get away as a murder mystery party, in which they will have to solve his murder. Benoit Blanc also receives an invitation, and the guests assume Bron wanted to include the world’s greatest detective in his game, but once on the island, Bron tells Blanc that he didn’t invite him, which begs the question, who did? Ah, the mystery deepens! If I only cared…

The guests/suspects/victims include Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), Andi Brand (Janelle Monae), Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), and a few others. As I said, this lot of characters are about as unlikable and unrealistic as you will find in a movie. I had zero interest in any of them.

There are also a whole bunch of additional cameos and appearances by other celebrities and stars, and it’s all oh-so-much-fun, except that it isn’t.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY was once again written and directed by Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed the first movie as well as STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017). He does this movie no favors. He has created a glossy bright colorful movie that will look good playing in the background on TV sets inside your home, the type of film that seems like a fun time if you don’t pay attention to the actual script. Basically, it’s a good-looking piece of fluff that is about as satisfying as an empty plate.

Then there’s the clever, intricate mystery that is simply too complicated to figure out for anyone other than the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc. You know why it’s complicated? Because it’s fabricated! It’s not a real mystery. Blanc goes around making pronouncements that have no basis in fact. He just says things and they turn out to be true, not the other way around. Unlike Sherlock Holmes who used logic and observation to solve mysteries, Blanc uses the “I have the screenplay in my hands” reasoning. He solves things because the writer says he does. We are never invited inside his mind to see just exactly what it is that makes him such a great detective. He just solves crimes.

But there are so many little “in” jokes peppered throughout this movie. Aren’t those funny?

In a word.

No.

As much as I didn’t enjoy his accent or his in-name only detective skills, Benoit Blanc was a more enjoyable character here in the sequel than he was in the first movie. In fact, one of the few things I enjoyed this time around was Daniel Craig’s performance. He actually made me laugh several times during this movie, albeit when he wasn’t trying to solve the crime. Some of his best moments come during random throw away lines, like when he talks about how much he hates the game Clue.

Edward Norton seems to be playing a variation of himself, or at least of his onscreen persona. He knows how to play an arrogant creep in his sleep. Janelle Monae gets a lot of screen time and is enjoyable, as she plays one of the less despicable characters in the movie, but she is overshadowed by the superficial annoying antics of everyone else.

The rest of the cast, in spite of the names involved, put me to sleep, frankly, mostly because the writing was so gosh darn awful. Rian Johnson has written a movie without one single realistic character appearing in it.

For some reason, the story takes place at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. At first, I thought this would have some bearing on the plot, as the characters are all masked, but once they get to the island, they receive a “magic” shot which I guess gives them immunity as they are told they can shed their masks without fear. The pandemic does set up the reason why Blanc takes the case, as he’s stuck at home and bored and begging for a case to come his way, a plot point I didn’t really buy. I mean, crimes are still committed during the pandemic, and there would still be a need for his services.

There’s also an annoying flashback right in the middle of the story, which goes back and fills in a lot of the blanks that the story left out the first time around. While the revelations in the flashback were interesting, the flashback itself killed any pacing the movie had up until that point.

The Glass Onion refers to the Beatles’ song by the way, and the tune plays over the end credits. While there is an obvious connection between the movie and the song, no attempt is really made to connect the movie to the point of the song, which was that John Lennon was poking fun at fans who were reading too much into the Beatles’ lyrics.

Then again, maybe Rian Johnson is poking fun at movie audiences who take movies too seriously. Hmm. Could be. That could explain why he made such a dumb movie.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY is disguised as a clever comedy mystery, but in reality, it’s shallow and dumb.

I give GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY a mundane two stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK (2021) – SOPRANOS Back Story Far Less Riveting Than the TV Series

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THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK (2021) has as its subtitle “A SOPRANOS story.” It would have been a much better movie had it really been a SOPRANOS story!

Technically, it is, as it provides backstory for a young Tony Soprano, but the movie is really about Dickie Moltisanti, Tony’s favorite uncle and the man who influenced his rise into the mob world. And at the end of the day, Dickie Moltisanti is a far less compelling character than Tony Soprano. The film suffers for this.

Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is the father of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), a prominent character on the HBO hit TV series THE SOPRANOS (1999-2007), on which the characters in this movie are based. And by far that’s the best part of THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK, seeing characters decades before they appeared on THE SOPRANOS. Imperioli even provides some voice-over narration as Christopher from beyond the grave.

The actors here do a phenomenal job in that regard. Vera Farmiga is spot on as Tony Soprano’s mother, Livia, a role played so well by Nancy Marchand for two seasons on THE SOPRANOS before her untimely death from lung cancer. Farmiga nails the character, and we get to see her cold, detached relationship with Tony already having an affect on him as a teenager. Farmiga has had plenty of practice playing monster moms, having played Norman Bates’ mother Norma on the acclaimed TV show BATES MOTEL (2013-17).

Likewise, Corey Stoll is perfect as Tony’s other uncle, Junior, who was having back trouble even back in the 1970s. Alexandra Intrator is also spot on as Tony’s older sister Janice. My personal favorite was watching Billy Magnussen ham it up as a young Paulie.

But the most intriguing casting by far is Michael Gandolfini as the teenage Tony Soprano. Gandolfini is the son of James Gandolfini who play Tony Soprano on THE SOPRANOS, who tragically passed away in 2013 at the age of 51 from a heart attack. Michael Ganolfini is excellent in the role, and he does capture the same expressions, smiles, ways of speaking, and nuances as his father, and so you really do believe you are watching a young Tony Soprano on screen. This was definitely a highlight of the movie.

But like I said, the main focus here is on Dickie Moltisanti. The story takes place first in the late 1960s and then switches to the early 1970s, amidst the backdrop of racial tensions and violence. As such, one of Dickie’s enforcers, a black man, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.), is forced to flee New Jersey because of a murder warrant, but when the action switches to the 1970s, Harold returns and decides to take charge and run his own numbers racket, giving Dickie stiff competition.

Not only is Dickie dealing with trying to fend off Harold and his new organization, but he has an abusive father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) who is now beating his new young wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), which Dickie takes offense to and eventually takes action to take down his father, and afterwards makes Giuseppina his mistress. He also has a complicated relationship with his nephew Tony, who worships him. Dickie likes Tony too and goes back and forth between including and excluding the teen in his mob world, and by the time he realizes he should be doing everything he can to shield Tony from the underworld, it’s too late.

While Alessandro Nivola is quite good as Dickie Moltisanti, the character just isn’t that interesting. The film would have worked far better had the story focused more on young Tony.

Michela De Rossi is excellent as Giuseppina Moltisanti, as she exhibits both strength and independence, and yet possesses a willingness to play the role of the “kept woman”, which constantly has her fearing for her life at the hands of the Moltisanti men. De Rossi delivers one of the best performances in the movie.

Fans of Leslie Odom Jr. will enjoy his considerable screen time as rising criminal Harold McBrayer, but again his screen time takes away from Tony’s. And Jon Bernthal rounds out the cast with a solid performance as Tony Soprano’s father, Johnny Soprano. The scenes between Bernthal and Vera Farmiga as Livia are some of the livelier ones in the movie.

THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK was directed by Alan Taylor. The film captures the look of the period, and the pacing is okay, deliberate, slow in some parts, but never dull. The violence is there, one scene in particular involving a tire riveter. Taylor also directed THOR: DARK WORLD (2013) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015), two movies I somewhat enjoyed. THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK, while a far different movie from those two, is comparable in terms of quality to those actioners.

Lawrence Konner wrote the screenplay, based on the characters created by David Chase. The dialogue is decent, but the story subpar, and the connections to Tony Soprano nowhere near as fleshed out as they needed to be. While technically this is a Sopranos story, it’s kind of a Sopranos-lite story. Still, the screenplay is better than some earlier Konner vehicles, films like SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987) and the dreadful Tim Burton PLANET OF THE APES (2001) remake.

If you haven’t seen THE SOPRANOS, you may still enjoy THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK, since it tells a self-contained story about Dickie Moltisanti. But since my favorite parts of the movie all had to do with its connections to THE SOPRANOS, I’m guessing if you haven’t seen the show you won’t enjoy the movie as much.

THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK is a decent mobster movie, but as a SOPRANOS story, it’s far less riveting than expected.

Fans of the TV series deserve more.

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ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2021) – Fictional Account of Four 1960s Icons Phenomenal and Flawless

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It’s all about the screenplay.

So often, the one element which hurts a movie the most is its screenplay. Generally speaking, bad screenplay, bad movie. Likewise, if your movie has a good screenplay, chances are, you have a winner on your hands.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2021), now available on Prime Video, not only has a good screenplay, it has a phenomenal one! Written by Kemp Powers, based on his stage play of the same name, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI tells the fictional account of four icons, Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) getting together in a hotel room in Miami to celebrate Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Title earlier that night, and the ensuing conversations between them as they navigate through Malcolm X’s views on race relations, and their own roles in the movement make for superior storytelling from start to finish.

When he defeated Liston that night for the Heavyweight Title, Ali was still known as Cassius Clay, but under the guidance of his friend and mentor Malcolm X, Clay had been considering converting to Islam. In fact, this get-together from Malcolm X’s perspective, was largely to finalize that conversion, and to tell their two other friends, Cooke and Brown, about it.

On this night, Malcolm X is on edge. He knows people are following him, that there are threats against his life, and he is having conflicts within the ranks of the Nation of Islam, but more so, he feels the struggle for the black man is imminent, and there is no time to slack off and accept the status quo. And so, in addition to his invitation to Clay, he also leans heavily into Sam Cooke, a singer Malcolm X accuses of cozying up too much to white society. Cooke does not take kindly to this criticism, and most of the night the two friends engage in heated exchanges.

Meanwhile, Jim Brown, the NFL’s biggest star, does not agree with Malcolm X’s militant stance on race, and yet he knows huge problems exist in the country. He just doesn’t agree with Malcolm’s solutions. And Cassius Clay, while originally enthustiastic about becoming a Muslim, has ever increasing doubts as the heated arguments continue throughout the evening.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is chock full of memorable lines and conversations. It’s pratically a treatise on race relations, and even though the story takes place in 1964 and is seen through the eyes of four icons of the that period, the conversations remain relevant in the here and now. And it’s done on a canvas of a marvelous play. The dialogue, the relationships, the characters, they all come to life, and thanks to director Regina King, who invites the audience right into the room with these guys, you feel like you’re right there sitting next to them.

One of the more memorable lines comes as Jim Brown is shaking his head at Malcolm X and telling him it always amazes him that Malcom so freely mixes being religious with being militant, to which Malcolm replies, “what’s the difference?”

Nearly every conversation is a memorable exchange. From Malcolm X pointing out that Bob Dylan, a white man, has written songs more pointed towards their cause than anything Cooke has written, to Cooke’s lambasting Malcolm over his comments following JFK’s assassination, telling Malcolm “my mother cried when JFK died. So did I. I liked JFK.”

Eli Goree delivers the most fun performance in the movie as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. He captures Clay’s exhuberance and over-the-top personality, and enjoys many scene stealing moments, like when he’s bragging he doesn’t have a scratch on his face and looks in the mirror, stopping abruptly and going silent as if concerned. When his three friends rush to his aid, he says, “How is it that I’m so handsome!” It’s one of the better performances of Clay/Ali that I’ve ever seen.

Kingsley Ben–Adir makes for an intense, introspective, driven, and visibly frightened Malcolm X. His scenes of harsh criticism of his friends are juxtaposed with his late night phone calls to his wife and daughters, revealing him as a loving, caring family man. And while his friends push back, he desperately tries to tell them that he’s not criticizing them, but trying to motivate them to help their cause.

Aldis Hodge plays Jim Brown as the most level headed of the group, in that he’s the least interested in Malcolm’s cause and simply believes that the way to achieve equality is through economic means, and each of them by their own successes are already doing that. Malcolm disagrees and says that is not enough. For Brown, he knows things are bad, he’s experienced things first-hand, but he just doesn’t see the answer as coming through militant means. Hodge is very good in the role, as he’s been in a bunch of other movies, including THE INVISIBLE MAN (2019), BRIAN BANKS (2018), and HIDDEN FIGURES (2019).

Leslie Odom, Jr. plays Sam Cooke and partakes in the film’s most fiery scenes, as Cooke is constantly at odds with Malcolm X. And the reason Cooke takes Malcolm’s criticisms so seriously is because he believes he has been doing these things, he has been making strides for race relations, and so he is irked by Malcolm’s statements to the contrary. He recounts the story of how a song he wrote and another black artist recorded reached #49 on the charts, and when a British band called the Rolling Stones asked for permission to do a cover version of the song, he said yes. He says Malcolm would have said no because they were white, but Cooke said yes, and the Rolling Stones version went to #1 on the pops chart. And since Cooke owned the royalties, both he and the black singer collected huge checks, and with that kind of money, that is how Cooke says he is a making a difference.

It’s an excellent performance by Odom, known mostly these days for his performance as Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton, as well as in the movie version, HAMILTON (2020).

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is actress’ Regina King’s directorial debut, and it’s a powerful one. She captures the look and feel of the period with ease. Everything about this movie looks authentic. And she is able to weave in and out of the various conversations and arguments without ever losing any momentum. In spite of the fact that this one is driven by dialogue, it is cinematic in scope and does not feel like a simple stage play.

It’s captivating from start to finish, and there isn’t a dull moment in any of its two hour running time.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is pretty much flawless. Add this one to your queue immediately. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long time.

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