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Review: ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,’ Delightful Interlocking Puzzles

Daniel Craig stars in a new mystery-thriller from writer/director Rian Johnson, arriving on Netflix December 23.

Around the world, several friends happily work together to solve a mysterious puzzle box that has been delivered to them, eventually revealing an invitation to an exotic location for a luxurious weekend getaway.

That opening sequence sets the tone for Glass Onion: A Knives Out, a sequel to Knives Out (2019) that is the best kind of sequel, in that it follows one key character, famed private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), and places him into an entirely new setting, surrounded by entirely new characters, as he unexpectedly finds himself endeavoring to unravel another complex and deadly crime. 

It’s an entirely pleasant film that builds upon the first film and gives Benoit Blanc an entirely new type of mystery to solve. Therefore, it would be entirely unfair of me to deprive any potential viewers of the opportunity to solve the mystery for themselves, or simply to wallow in the wonderfully complex world that filmmaker Rian Johnson has created for the sequel. 

Instead, let’s talk about Rian Johnson. 

From his first feature film, Brick (2005), Johnson has manifested an abiding interest in mysteries, which form an integral element in each of his narratives, which, in turn, swoop and jump around traditional story arcs, leading to surprising twists and unexpected curves, nonetheless always arriving at satisfying conclusions.  

To cloak his mysterious bent, Johson has further played with stylistic conventions, merging high-school and noir expectations in the aforementioned Brick, playing around with con artists and romance in The Brothers Bloom (2008), as well as action and science-fiction tropes in the delirious Looper (2012) and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), the latter leaving an impossible puzzle for poor J.J. Abrams to try and solve, and prompting many hardcore fans to complain that Johnson had destroyed the franchise, somehow. 

Meanwhile, Johnson moved on to Knives Out (2019), which only weakened in its third act, as it leaned more heavily on a flurry of scenes that felt rough, unfinished, and obligatory. Whatever the reasons for that, and perhaps it’s only my remembrance of them in that manner, the complexity and pleasures of Glass Onion lies in its ability to maneuver smoothly between genres, paying homage to great mysteries of the past and revealing more about the personality of Benoit Blanc, perhaps the least believable “Southerner,” which may also be his greatest charm; we suspect that much more lies beneath his surface appearances, which feeds into the overriding mystery narrative. 

Glass Onion also features a powerhouse performance by Janelle Monae and entertaining turns by Edward Norton, as the villain of the piece, and juicy contributions by Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Kathryn Hahn and Leslie Odom Jr., with very welcome wildcard support by Jessica Henwick and Madelyn Cline, not to forget the dependable Noah Sagan. 

All in all, it’s a complete delight, and one of the year’s best. 

The film debuts worldwide, including Dallas and Fort Worth, on Netflix Friday, December 23, 2022.

Review: ‘No Time to Die’

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga.

The newest James Bond adventure begins like a horror movie. 

In a lakeside cabin during the dead of winter, the opening scene introduces a masked intruder (Rami Malek) vowing revenge. He cruelly dispatches a mother before advancing upon her young daughter. The girl flees from the cabin, running across an adjacent frozen lake before the ice begins to crack and the killer advances upon her submerged little body. He raises the gun to shoot. 

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga and his team of writers, including himself, thus establishes a starkly different atmosphere for the latest entry in a long-running secret agent franchise. James Bond (Daniel Craig) is then introduced some years later, somewhere in Italy, where he resides with Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), enjoying to the extent possible his retirement from the British Secret Service. 

It is not a typical retirement, of course. He always keeps his location secret, is always on the move from one place to another, and is always on guard that any one of a number of past villains from his checkered past may resurface at any time or place with the intent to kill him and any bystanders. 

When it happens, then, he is not truly surprised, but he is angry. How would anyone know his present location unless he was betrayed by Madeleine? It’s not unthinkable, he thinks; he’s been betrayed before, even as he makes allusions to his past and we see him visit the grave of his first great love, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) from Casino Royale (2006). 

All this serves as prelude to a moody, menacing, and meditative adventure that, nonetheless, frequently erupts into furious, grand-scale action sequences that burn like a dry meadow on fire. No Time to Die plays like a salute and a farewell to Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond, who has been replaced as 007 in the British Secret Service by Nomi (Lashana Lynch), a lethal weapon who is just as deadly as James Bond, though she still follows the rules of engagement set forth by M (Ralph Fiennes), which pleases him immensely. 

Like James Bond himself, M is even colder and more severe than he has been in past adventures, which fits the new film’s updated worldview precisely. The cold war has been replaced with individual missions that dispatch people in coldhearted fashion. No one is safe. 

No Time to Die spins a complex web of interlocking plotlines that is sometimes difficult to follow, though it ultimately falls back on old-fashioned ideas that individual villains with incomprehensibly twisted motivations still want to rule the world and that dozens of hired minions still want to die to help said villains achieve their nightmare visions of domination. No one survives to get paid even a modest payday, which is one of the distinguishing elements that has always divorced the movies from reality. 

In the James Bond movies, however, fantasy still rules the day. This particular fantasy is notable for the abundance of dark colors in its psychological and visual palette. Daniel Craig is given new layers for his character to deal with and adjust to, and it is quite enjoyable to watch the actor Daniel Craig embolden and deepen his characterization of James Bond. 

As a quiet, soft spoken villain who has long curdled into quiet, spiteful hatred, Rami Malek underplays his character, to little effect. This, too, appears to be part of the grand plan that director Fukunaga chose to pursue in redesigning ‘the James Bond adventure.’ Malek comes across in the role as entirely unpleasant and uncomfortable, which may have been the intention. 

The heroic Daniel Craig is surrounded by quality actors in support, such as Ben Whishaw, Jeffrey Wright and Naomi Harris, who are given more to do than simply snap out witty lines of dialogue. They are tasked with fleshing out their supporting characters with life, depth, and personality. Though they are supporting Craig, Seydoux, Fiennes, and Lynch, they ably do so within snippets of screen time. Ana de Armas supplies a rare breath of fresh comic air, supplemented by her fashionable ability to look great while effortlessly killing countless people. 

Mostly, No Time to Die is a serious, highly-accomplished, and ridiculously mounted dramatic adventure about Serious Things. Ian Fleming might have been confused by it, but this is a picture that is made for the here and now. And it looks undeniably wonderful on the big screen. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on October 8, 2021, via MGM. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘SPECTRE’

A sequel that feels like a remake of a remake, SPECTRE starts strong before steadily losing momentum.

Whether through fiat by the producers — currently Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli — or not, the Bond films have accumulated a number of elements that must be honored, lest they incur the perceived wrath of audiences worldwide. That leaves the screenwriters to figure out how to include those old bones while implanting new connective tissue into an aging skeleton that is no longer as fresh and potent as it was when the series began in 1962 with Sean Connery in Dr. No.

Last time out, Skyfall made it personal, distinguishing itself with the viciousness of its vengeful intentions and the sprightly, highly colorful digital imagery of master cinematographer Roger Deakins. This time out, Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) takes over behind the camera. As it turns out, it was a bold choice but a poor match for the material; the film looks like a dark spy movie but plays like a rudimentary Hollywood blockbuster. (I’m not saying that Roger Deakins would have saved the movie, but I am saying he would have helped, and this movie needed all the help it could get.)

Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have worked on all four of the Bond films starring Daniel Craig, and have laid the patchy groundwork for the current version of the secret agent, in which he has little interest in Queen and Country. (John Logan and Jez Butterworth also receive credit for the screenplay while Logan shares credit with Purvis and Wade for the story.) SPECTRE acknowledges the previous three installments of the series, seeking to tie things together story-wise, presumably in the hopes of building toward a grander climax.

First, though, the movie must wade through the required elements. The opening action sequence, set in Mexico City, is the high point as director Sam Mendes creates a slick, absorbing set-piece, seemingly a single shot, following Bond as he seeks out a man he wants to kill. After he returns to London, it’s revealed that Bond was not on official business; nonetheless, under strong suspicion despite the lack of evidence, he is suspended from active duty by his superior, M (Ralph Fiennes), who is busy dealing with the merger of his agency with MI-5, led by an ambitious bureaucrat (Timothy Scott), derisively called “C” by Bond.

Naturally, Bond must see Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to establish that he’s still a charming rascal who can count on his subservient friends to care for his needs and cover up his plan to track down The Man Responsible. He journeys to Italy, where he beds down the newly-widowed Lucia, whose husband he killed in Mexico. Lucia is played, briefly, by Monica Bellucci, and for all that that was made of her appearance in the movie as an ‘appropriately-aged’ Bond woman, she’s treated like a Bond girl, and the role is a cameo, anyway.

Then it’s off to Switzerland, where Bond meets Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of another Bond opponent. The not-so-secret agent is bound to protect her, and so she comes along as another piece of eye candy. Beyond that, she gives him an excuse to explain the plot.

The movie creaks on from there, pitting Bond against the murderous, silent Hinx (Dave Bautista) more than once and incorporating lengthy, complex, and carefully choreographed and rehearsed action sequences that are burdened by their measured precision. Nothing in SPECTRE feels spontaneous or surprising, and the narrative never builds to much of any kind of suspenseful heights.

It’s an even-keeled, very safe sort of blockbuster. If I was 11 years old and only saw one movie annually in a theater, I’d probably be alright with SPECTRE. But I’m not, and I wasn’t.

The film opens wide in theaters throughout the area on Friday, November 6, with preview screenings in select theaters on Thursday, November. Check local listings for more information.

Review: ‘Skyfall’ is Top-Notch All the Way

Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall' (MGM/Sony Pictures Entertainment)
Daniel Craig as James Bond in ‘Skyfall’ (MGM/Sony Pictures Entertainment)
First things first: Skyfall is the most gorgeous-looking blockbuster of the year, hands down, thanks to director of photography Roger Deakins.

Now it might seem strange to start a review of one of the most anticipated movies of the year by praising the cinematography, but I want to call attention to work that is worthy of an Academy Award in a movie series that has rarely (nine nominations in total; two wins) been so honored. It’s a mark of the film’s accomplishment, however, that the photography is not the finest achievement of Skyfall, orchestrated by director Sam Mendes under the guiding hands of producers Barbara Brocoli and Michael G. Wilson.

In Skyfall, superior action sequences surround superb dramatic scenes, one after the after, in a near-continuous stream, flowing effortlessly through a nail-biting narrative that rarely pauses; when it does, it’s for effect, to allow the mind to catch up with the racing heart.

The film’s modus operandi is established in the opening scenes. Long established as a trademark in the series, the pre-credits sequence is an opportunity for each installment to try and top all that have come before for outlandish, insanely dangerous stunts and situations. Here we have James Bond (Daniel Craig) and fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) in hot pursuit of a stolen list containing the secret identies of undercover British intelligence agents. Under the direct supervision of M (Judi Dench), the agents incur millions of dollars in property damage, heedlessly smashing vehicles and risking the lives of hundreds of people, ending up with Bond on top of a train locked in mortal combat with the thief while Eve locks onto her target with an assassin’s long-range rifle; a tunnel is looming ahead and seconds remain. M must make a fateful decision.

It’s all rather breathless, and the film hurtles forward from there. Nary a shot is wasted; Mendes and veteran editor Stuart Baird never linger, always pushing things forward. The story revolves around the stolen list and the increasing pressure upon M for her perceived failures, especially as applied by government minister Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who now provides oversight for the intelligence agencies. Knowing that she is being forced into retirement, M doubles down to recapture the stolen list and discover the personal connection that she may have to the thief.

Javier Bardem creates a memorable villain, edging toward parody without falling into that trap, and key support is provided by Harris, Fiennes, Ben Whishaw as a terribly young techno-whiz Q, and Bérénice Marlohe as a new version of the “Bond girl.”

But the film belongs to Craig and Dench, with Craig giving the most complex portrayal of 007 yet and Dench fleshing out her character’s years of experience. The script is credited to Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as John Logan, but it’s the performances that truly persuade, smoothing over several rough patches in the narrative. Skyfall is top-notch all the way.

Skyfall opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, November 9.

Review: ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’

Rooney Mara in 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' (2011)
Rooney Mara in 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' (2011)

“I need your help to catch a killer of women, Lisbeth.” The guts of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ are laid bare within the appeal for assistance by Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). They each need the other, but not for the reasons that are initially presented.

Mikael is a magazine journalist in Sweden who suffered public disgrace after being convicted for libel against corrupt, powerful businessman Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg). A large settlement was also awarded, and his magazine, already in severe financial distress, is in danger of folding. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an arch-rival of Wennerstrom  and now retired, seeks out Mikael and offers him a sweet deal: Financial salvation and incriminating evidence against Wennerstrom in exchange for solving the case of his missing grand-niece, who disappeared in the 1960s.

The only catch is that Mikael must stay on the Vanger family’s private island, located in a rural part of Sweden. So he bids a temporary farewell to his business and domestic partner Erika Berger (Robin Wright) and heads off to an isolated cabin in the dead of winter. Multiple members of the Vanger family live in a compound on the island, but the one who stands out is Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), Henrik’s nephew, and now running the family business.

Mikael makes progress on his investigation, thinly disguised at Henrik’s request as ‘writing a memoir’ of the old man, coming to believe that Henrik’s grand-niece may have been the victim of a serial killer. But he begins running into dead ends and recognizes that he needs help to achieve a breakthrough. Thus the meeting with Lisbeth, who has done research work for the Vanger family in the recent past.

In her early 20s, Lisbeth is still a ward of the state, for reasons that will become apparent. She receives money from a trust fund, and when the guardianship of the trust is passed from a kindly older gentleman to a burly younger man named Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), troubles begin anew for Lisbeth, troubles that will reveal the depths of pain that she has suffered in the past and that she is willing to inflict upon others in order to protect herself in the future.

Lisbeth is a complex character; she draws from seething undercurrents of anger, anguish, and anxiety, while on the outside she appears to be withdrawn, flinching at the touch of a male stranger yet eager to spend the night with a female night clubber. She is brilliant at what she does, able to hack through computer security systems with the greatest of ease, analyze the information she finds, and summarize the results in concise form.

Rooney Mara is outstanding in the role, capturing the character’s abrupt, if subtle, changes in mood and temperament, all while suggesting the whirling tides of emotion that surge within and maintaining a rigid, physically fit (if scary thin) body posture. It’s one of the top performances of the year.

According to interviews, writer Steven Zaillan adapted the 2005 novel by Stieg Larsson without regard to the 2009 Swedish film version, directed by Niels Arden Oplev. I’ve seen the first movie but haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment specifically on the differences between them, though there are, evidently, significant differences. Beyond multiple key scenes and plot points, however, what the movies hold in common is a convoluted mystery that is less than compelling, filled with red herrings and complex family relationships. Perhaps on the page it’s easier to track the family tree and the relationship of one character to another, both in time and space. But on the screen, it’s easy to get lost.

But, considering that I’d already seen the Swedish film, watching the new version made the plot easier to follow; I knew which characters are most important to the story, and which ones could be safely ignored. David Fincher’s direction is marvelously fluid and Jeff Cronenweth’s digital photography — he took over after Fredrik Backar had completed 20 days of the 145-day shoot — is a wonder to behold, fully conveying the icy beauty of a Swedish winter. Editing by the team of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who won Academy Awards for their work on ‘The Social Network,’ maximizes the dramatic tension and narrative flow of the picture. Add to that the unnerving musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which adds another level of unease to the proceedings.

Brutal and grueling, poetic and profane, ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ is not the easiest film to watch with eyes wide open during the holiday season — or any other season, for that matter. Still, it’s one of David Fincher’s more haunting films, as likely to leave scars as it is to move hearts.

‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ opens wide tonight across the Metroplex.