by Julian Spivey
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Janelle Monae & Edward Norton
Runtime: 2 hours & 19 minutes
Writer/Director Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” was a massive surprise for me in 2019. I expected a fun whodunnit mystery but wound up with my favorite movie and movie-going experience of the year.
The cast was terrific, the script was wildly funny, it kept you guessing the entire runtime and it introduced us to an incredible modern-day detective in Daniel Craig’s Southern gent Benoit Blanc.
Blanc was ripe for a series and Johnson must have realized this the very moment he saw Craig’s performance. A sequel, featuring Blanc, was announced soon after the success of “Knives Out.”
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” was released to Netflix on Friday, December 23 after a short theatrical run over Thanksgiving weekend in some parts of the country to make it eligible for the Academy Awards. Netflix reported on Tuesday, December 27 that the film was viewed 82.1 million hours during its Christmas opening weekend on the platform.
‘Glass Onion’ opens with a group of well-to-do people receiving a mysterious puzzle box in the mail during the 2020 pandemic leading them to a weekend getaway on the private Greek island of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who’s probably a satire of Elon Musk. For some mysterious reason, Blanc is also invited to this getaway that turns out to be a murder mystery party.
Blanc ruins the actual murder mystery party pretty quickly in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, but the real story of what’s going on on this island is that Bron and his longtime friends: senate candidate Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), scientist for Bron’s company Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), politically incorrect model and fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and gaming streamer and men’s rights activist Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) have all screwed Andi Brand (Janelle Monae) out of her place in Bron’s company, for which she was the real mastermind.
The first 45 minutes or so of ‘Glass Onion’ are maybe a bit too enamored with the setup of getting to the island and then the lush scenes of this escape weekend. It takes so long to get to the murder – the first murder that is – that we’re a good hour into the movie before it happens.
The movie kicks into high gear from this point, especially a flashback moment involving how Blanc became a part of the mystery unveiling the movie’s biggest secret. It’s pretty fun from here until the end of the film – though the ending is probably not as satisfying as it could have been and certainly not as satisfying as “Knives Out.” The ultimate killer is also not all that surprising. The movie’s real high is that flashback sequence around its midpoint.
Blanc was the reason many were so excited to see ‘Glass Onion,’ as he was one of the standouts (along with Ana de Armas in “Knives Out,” but in the sequel, you could certainly argue that it’s Monae that stands out as the best and even lead performance and may, in fact, steal some of the glory away from Craig’s performance and character.
Sequels almost never hold up to the original, but I think ‘Glass Onion’ does a good job. It’s certainly not as good as “Knives Out,” but it’s still one of the most fun experiences I’ve had watching a movie in 2022. I think there’s a good chance Johnson will be nominated for an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for his script. He was nominated in 2020 for Original Screenplay for “Knives Out” (because the sequel features a previously written character in Blanc it’ll have to compete in the Adapted category, which is dumb, but Academy rules). Monae may even be a dark horse for Best Supporting Actress.
by Aprille Hanson-Spivey
Director: Sean Anders
Starring: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds & Octavia Spencer
Runtime: 2 hours & 7 minutes
If there’s another movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol out in the world, it better be worth it. Luckily, AppleTV+’s latest attempt at resurrecting the age-old Christmas redemption tale with the musical “Spirited” did not disappoint. It’s led masterfully by comedy veteran Will Ferrell as Present, the ghost of Christmas present, who has gotten into a bit of a spiritual rut in helping people redeem themselves each Christmas to be a positive change in the world. They plan all year to help one soul on Christmas night, visited by the traditional Dickens’ ghosts of Marley (Patrick Page), Past (Sunita Mani), Present and Yet-To-Come (Tracy Morgan (voice)/Loren G. Woods (body)).
It’s not that the people Present and the rest of the ghosts are helping aren’t turning out to be great humans — apparently, Dolly Parton was one of them. It’s just reconciling the idea of how much can one person change the whole of a society that’s on a downward trajectory.
So, he’s thinking of retiring — going back to earth to live out his mortal life after years of being a ghost and changing lives. But he’s set his sights on one very uphill challenge that could create a lot of ripples of change — the “unredeemable” Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), whose PR company runs on fueling the flames of discord in modern society. Case in point — convincing Christmas tree growers they need to essentially start a culture war claiming that anyone who buys a fake Christmas tree is going against the “tradition” and “values” of Christmas. And it works, just one of the many ways “Spirited” throws in the not-so-hard-to-believe absurdity of society nowadays.
But Briggs isn’t exactly like the classic Scrooge, and Present should know – since he was, in fact, the original Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s a simple, yet clever plot twist in “Spirited.” Briggs really doesn’t believe people can change and in fact, he tries to help Present figure out his own restlessness. They even visit Victorian England and go on a hilarious “Good Afternoon” musical rampage — apparently, this was an “insult” back then. Not to mention Briggs essentially breaks into ghost headquarters, has sex with Past and upsets Yet-To-Come so much he’s able to overcome his muteness to use his catchphrase “You’ve been Christmas-caroled bitch.”
To be fair, Briggs has a lot of baggage, including the death of his older sister and leaving his brother, Owen (Joe Tippett) to take care of his niece, despite his sister asking him to be her guardian. It’s easy to see his life is off the rails when he tells his eighth-grader niece (Marlow Barkley) to share “opposition research” on her classmate she’s trying to beat for student council president. But is he actually redeemable?
The answer, in the end, is yes. It’s something he pays for with his life.
Just like in the original, “Spirited” deals with dark themes — societal discord, teen suicide, death, humanity’s weaknesses, etc. It never becomes too corny or too dark. It’s really the perfect balance. It’s in large part due to the side story of Present’s love interest in Kimberly, the always amazing Octavia Spencer, who is also on a journey of self-discovery and self-worth.
The musical has everything it should in over-the-top dance numbers and super catchy songs, combined with dark and light themes of human redemption. It also had some funny Easter eggs — like Ferrell calling a guy stupid for being dressed like his classic character Buddy from the beloved Christmas movie “Elf.”
What was most intriguing was the movie didn’t promote the idea that it takes just one night to change. It emphasized how every day is a choice to wake up and make a ripple of positivity into the world. That’s a lesson every viewer, both young and old, could learn from today.
"Spirited" can be streamed on AppleTV+.
by Julian Spivey
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence & Brian Tyree Henry
Runtime: 1 hour & 32 minutes
“Causeway,” directed by Lila Neugebauer, is a story of getting your life back on track after trauma and features two of the best acting performances of the year from Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry.
The film opens with an extended scene of rehab undergone by Lynsey (Lawrence), a U.S. soldier, who was injured during her tour in Afghanistan when the vehicle she was riding in hit an I.E.D. The rehab is hard, but it’s soon made clear that it’s not near as hard for her as having to return to her home in New Orleans, with a distant mother and imprisoned brother. All she wants is to be cleared so she can return to active duty and avoid the monotony and aimlessness of her life at home.
When the family truck breaks down Lynsey meets James (Henry), a mechanic, and the two form a quick friendship. It’s not known at the beginning, but you quickly realize the two’s bond is formed via shared trauma. James lost one of his legs in a car accident that killed his nephew and left him estranged from his sister.
“Causeway” is a simple story. It’s told through Lynsey’s perspective and features numerous conversations, most of them with James, throughout the film. It’s the kind of movie many might find boring, but I’ve always found it interesting when a film can take a lot of dialogue and a small cast and make it work. It works in this case because of the supreme acting talents of Lawrence and Henry.
“Causeway” sees Lawrence return to a small, indie film for the first time since she was pretty much discovered as a major acting talent in director Debra Granik’s 2010 film “Winter’s Bone,” for which she received her first Academy Award nomination at just 20 years old. Personally, I think her performance in “Causeway” and the movie itself are even better than that one – though it seems at this point Lawrence would be a longshot for an Oscar nomination for the role.
Lawrence completely enters the performance of an injured vet dealing with the trauma of returning to a home she never quite felt loved in as much as the trauma of the injury itself. It’s such a naturalistic performance showing why Lawrence is one of the best of her generation.
For years I’ve enjoyed Henry’s performance as often put upon rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles in the terrific FX dramedy series “Atlanta,” which just wrapped up its four-season run in November. Henry showed in that series how excellent of a naturalistic actor he could be, and that talent certainly transfers over to “Causeway” too. His character of James is affable, but clearly suffering from PTSD and depression from his life-altering accident.
Lynsey and James need one another, but not in the “they’re definitely going to hook up” aspect that would’ve been so easy for the film to fall into. They just get each other. They can help each other cope with the tragedies experienced in their lives. The chemistry between the two actors is easy to watch. You could watch these characters having hard-life conversations over a beer and some weed and not tire of it. Lawrence and Henry truly carry this film, so if you want to see two of today’s best showing off their acting chops “Causeway” is definitely for you.
You can stream “Causeway” on AppleTV+.
Year's Biggest Movie, Award Candidates and 'Yellowstone' Sequel Among December's Streaming Recommendations
by Julian Spivey
Bros - Peacock - Friday, December 2
Billy Eichner’s “Bros,” which he co-wrote and stars in, infamously didn’t do well at the box office when released to theaters in late September but has been one of the better-reviewed comedy films of the year. I wanted to get to it a couple of months ago, but life was busy. Thankfully here’s my reprieve to see what’s billed as the first mainstream (by a major movie studio) gay rom-com with its streaming debut on Peacock.
“Pinocchio” – Netflix – Friday, December 9
I understand there’s probably some “Pinocchio” fatigue as this is the third major “Pinocchio” film of the last couple of years – if you count Matteo Garrone’s international film that garnered two Oscar nominations in technical categories this past year. Of course, there was the poorly received and reviewed Disney live-action remake in September that starred Tom Hanks as Geppetto. Here Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro makes his animation debut with his version of the “Pinocchio” story which is receiving good early reviews and will be done as a stop-motion animated musical.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” – HBO Max – Tuesday, December 13
Director Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” has been one of the best-reviewed and most acclaimed films of 2022, but never came to my neck of the woods in theaters (as it sometimes goes in non-big cities). The black comedy stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as buddies on an Irish island who all of a sudden end their lifelong friendship for reasons that aren’t quite known to Farrell’s character. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is likely one of the early favorites to win Best Picture at the 2023 Oscars.
“1923” – Paramount+ - Sunday, December 18
“Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan has developed quite a series of shows featuring the Dutton family and their trials and tribulations throughout American history. Late last year Sheridan’s “1883” debuted to much fanfare and acclaim with a cast featuring Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Now comes the next installment of the “Yellowstone” series in “1923,” which features massive names like Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford in the lead roles. Unlike “1883,” which was one 10-episode season, “1923” is expected to be two, eight-episode seasons.
“Top Gun: Maverick” – Paramount+ - Friday, December 23
Tom Cruise is now in his fifth decade as a major motion picture superstar with his “Top Gun” sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” becoming the most-watched film in America, by far, earning over $700 million and counting. Part of the reason why the film did so well at the box office was Cruise’s insistence that it wouldn’t go immediately to streaming. Now more than a half year after its theater debut “Top Gun: Maverick” comes to the small, streaming screen on Paramount+ for the few of us (yes, that includes me) that didn’t go to our local cinemas to see it.
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” – Netflix – Friday, December 23
Director Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery “Knives Out” was perhaps my favorite movie of 2019 and was a bit of a shocker in that it was an original story that became a mass hit (something that rarely happens these days). Johnson decided to turn the “Knives Out” story into a series with the common denominator being Daniel Craig’s terrific Southern sleuth Benoit Blanc being the one to attempt to figure out the whodunnit. The greatly anticipated sequel co-stars Edward Norton, Janelle Monae, Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Kathryn Hahn and Leslie Odom Jr. This one should be a ton of fun, and its Netflix release coming on Christmas weekend should ensure plenty of family viewings across the country.
“White Noise” – Netflix – Friday, December 30
Author Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which I just began reading this week in anticipation of the film release, has been called “unfilmable” for years. Having only finished about a quarter of it I don’t quite understand what is meant by the novel being “unfilmable,” but I do know director Noah Baumbach has certainly given it a shot and his effort will be released on the final weekend of the year on Netflix. “White Noise” will feature Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig as a couple grappling with their family and life’s mundanity while grappling with a toxic event after a local train accident. Baumbach at the helm of a black comedy starring Driver and Gerwig could be a fun experience to behold.