GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY whodunit movie review

Cloth Mask: a COVID Mystery. The real mystery is why Johnson didn’t turnover his idea for this chapter in the fledgling franchise to a different screenwriter. World famous detective Benoit Blanc is back, but this mystery suffocates under constant reminders of the varying degrees of response to COVID-19. At the core of this Knives Out installment is an intriguing mystery; however, throughout the whole movie, the audience is reminded of about two years of recent history that most people would rather forget. The best part of the movie is a cameo, near the beginning, of a truly legendary TV detective. Even if you don’t want to watch the whole movie, watch the first few minutes, because you will undoubtedly love the cameo as much as I did.

Tech billionaire Miles Bron invites his friends for a getaway on his private Greek island. When someone turns up dead, Detective Benoit Blanc is put on the case.

Before I break down my thoughts on the movie, just who is that legendary TV detective that surprises us with a heartwarming cameo? None other than Dame Angela Lansbury, aka Murder, She Wrote‘s Jessica Fletcher! Knowing she makes her final film appearance in a murder mystery is incredibly poetic, and will absolutely thrill audiences.

While there is certainly a time and place for films that depict or are an abstract representation of events and people from real life, for purposes of inspiring conversations, most fictional films should transport us, be a momentary break from the negative stressors of life. From beginning to end, Glass Onion is a manifestation of COVID Theatre–and not for purposes of parody or satire–because it’s neither funny enough to be parody nor clever or thoughtful enough to be satire. Even though Rian Johnson is reprising his role as the writer-director of this one, the loss in quality from the brilliant Knives Out to this installment is rather conspicuous. Perhaps this is yet another example of why some directors need to stick to directing, and turn their ideas over to a screenwriter. Evidence of the poor pacing and structure is demonstrably witnessed in the simple fact that nothing big happens for an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie.

Another troubling aspect of this movie is the showdown. And no, I am not about to get into spoilers. But it’s a subject matter that certainly requires critiquing. Keeping in mind that when Glass Onion was written, Johnson could not have possibly known about now-recent headline-grabbing events (in Europe presently) about a group that feels by being a (to quote the movie) a disruptor that they can get their way. And in the film, something rather disturbing happens that could very well serve as inspiration for the continued despicable actions of this group. When these events began happening a few months ago, Johnson (or Netflix) should have rewritten and shot the ending because as it stands, the ending is tasteless.

The set and production design of the movie is nothing short of impressive. While the constant reminders of COVID do nothing to transport us to another world, the setting of this movie certainly does! I absolutely love witnessing the hand of the artist in the design of the palatial house and manicured gardens of the location where the murder mystery takes place. Much like the house in the original Knives Out felt like the Game of Clue, this one delivers a similar feel, which causes the house to feel like a character in and of itself.

While the story execution and writing leave much to be desired, the casting is great! Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is just as entertaining as he was in the first movie. Outside of the foghorn leghorn detective, Jannelle Monáe delivers a fantastic performance as the ex-wife of our murder mystery weekend host Miles Bron, enthusiastically played by Edward Norton. You’ll recognize many to the other cast members and there are a few cameos that will garner a laugh or two. Some of the characters aren’t given much to do, so they become filler. But for the characters that have something of substance to do, they are mostly entertaining.

Unlike the previous movie, this one feels very “Netflixy,” so it’s not one that benefits from a theatrical viewing. Watching it at home will be sufficient enough. However, an advantage to watching it during its limited theatrical run is avoiding spoilers on social media.

For more on the movie, visit Netflix.com/GlassOnion.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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DEATH ON THE NILE whodunit film review

You’ll want to watch it again! Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile takes everything you enjoyed about Murder on the Orient Express, and builds upon it to deliver a film that further proves that the subgenre whodunit remains timeless! Of course, much like with any murder-mystery or whodunit, it’s difficult to review without getting into spoilers. What I can tell you is that Death on the Nile boasts a stellar cast, exotic setting, and all the love and deception you want in a whodunit. Unlike the previous chapter in Branagh’s Agatha Christie adapted films, the Poirot we encounter feels more human. Contrary to previous TV and film adaptations, we witness the cracks in Poirot’s veneer, revealing his vulnerable side. Perhaps this may be another story with one of the best worst-kept secrets in literary history, but through Branagh’s direction and Michael Green’s screenplay, diegetic elements are added in order to entertain audiences with a fresh interpretation of the iconic literary work. Even after you learn who committed the murders aboard the luxury river cruise ship, you will instantly desire to watch again in order to find the clues that you missed.

Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short.

There may be some naysayers out there that are unfairly negatively criticizing the (and I’ll be honest, somewhat predictable) solution to the mystery, you have to remember that this literary work and previous film/TV adaptations have been around for a very long time, and have served as significant influencers for all whodunits to come thereafter. Naturally, fans of the whudunit genre may be able to completely or partially guess the who, why, and how. The best way to enjoy this film is to go in as a fan of classical whodunits; if you do that, I am confident that you will thoroughly enjoy your time at the cinema!

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Digital Citizenship at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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“I See You” (2019) Movie Review

See this spellbinding enigma! I See You is a beautifully and cleverly crafted horror-adjacent psychological thriller that combines the horror of a People Under the Stairs urban legend with the police procedural stylings of SE7EN and Along Came a Spider with Lynchian influences. An official selection at last year’s South By Southwest Film Festival, this movie is now included with Amazon Prime and available on other streaming services. Even since movie theatres had to close in the wake of COVID-19, I have been struggling to identify films to watch for purposes of a formal review. While selecting rewatches and select new watches for pure entertaining and passing the time has also been a struggle, I meet with a paralyzing indecisive quandary when browsing VOD selections for a film to review. Perhaps I am in the minority on this, but I depend on theatrical releases for structural, filter, and priority purposes. But after not releasing a new article last week, I knew that I needed to watch and review something. At the recommendation of a friend of my sister’s, I checked out I See You, and I am glad that I did! Starting out in a very Lynchian fashion with sweeping birds eye view camera shots over a sleepy, yet affluent hamlet, the seemingly supernatural tedious first act gives way to terrifying reality told through an enigmatic nonlinear narrative device in the second and third acts. To get into plot specifics would deprive you of the thrill of a first-time watch, but don’t believe everything you think you see in the film. Playing around with points of view, trauma, and the breakdown of a family, this film delivers the twists and turns you desire from a psychological thriller while concurrently delivering a depiction of what happens when trauma festers in the mind and soul without a constructive way of resolving it. In retrospect, some of the logic of the plot doesn’t quite make sense, and there are some elements that you simply have to chalk up to the suspension of disbelief. But the rollercoaster of a showdown finishes in a brilliant crescendo that feels like something that Wes Craven and David Lynch would have written together.

Strange occurrences plague Greg (Jon Tenney), a small town detective, and his family as he investigates the disappearance of a young boy whom appears to be the victim of a copycat serial killer. With the specter of a man sent to prison that may have been innocent, Greg is also dealing with the recent affair of his wife Jackie (Helen Hunt) and the unbridled anger exhibited by his son Connor (Judah Lewis) over his mother’s affair.

The nonlinear plot of I See You employs Hitchcockian misdirection with subjective vantage points and audience expectations versus reality. Quite the brilliant combination for a psychological thriller. After the diegetic catalyst of a young boy being violently ripped from his bicycle–literally thrown into the air–sets the melancholy, ominous tone for the movie, the first and second acts of the film tell the same story, but from two different perspectives. The malevolent force witnessed in the opening scene seems to follow audiences to the unnerving confines of the Harper house that is spatially large, but an ominous presence takes the palatial house and makes it feel like a prison. In retrospect, the breadcrumbs are all too obvious; however, many of these conspicuous clues go unregistered by the audience because of the more exciting prospect of a supernatural force at work. I appreciate how the main action and subplot compliment the themes of reconnecting with estranged family members, guilt, resentment, and trauma. Moreover, the search for the missing boy parallels Jackie’s search for her estranged son whilst dealing with her ideal family image hiding dark secrets.

During the first act, we receive a great deal of exposition; fortunately, the subplot backstory of Jackie’s transgression (which we learn is a recent affair for which she is genuinely remorseful) is delivered primarily through dramatic character reaction and supplemented with dialogue. While the familial drama provides a tantalizing subplot, it’s the search for the missing boy believed to be the victim of a sadistic pedophillial copy cat serial killer that is the main action plot of the film. And the backstory for the action plot is creatively delivered through the police procedural headed by Greg. We learn everything that we need to know in order to understand the plot in the first few scenes. While some of what we learn is intentionally designed to misdirect our attention–think of it as a magician focusing our attention on his right hand while it’s the left hand that is creating the magic–it is still valuable information that will all come together in the end. After the big reveal in the epilogue, everything that unfolded throughout the movie becomes even more sinister.

Over all, you’ll find strong performances by the three lead cast. The top-billed Helen Hunt, while starting out as the central character, quickly becomes a chief supporting character to Tenney and Lewis. However, she delivers the strongest performance out of the three. Not that the other two do not command the screen, Lewis is able to showcase his acting chops that provide evidence that he is shaping up to be a diverse actor capable of the young adult comedy of The Babysitter and the shocking anger of his character in this film. Screenwriter Devon Graye and director Adam Randall demonstrate an outstanding comprehension of story craft that simultaneously embraces horror/thriller tropes and subverting the genre expectations. Creatively expressing the story for the screen is the stylistic cinematography that effortlessly switches modes from subjective to objective without disorienting the audience. The editor takes a page out of the David Fincher color pallet and technique to showcase the neo-noir tone of the film. Editing is one of the most undervalued technical elements in a film–undervalued by the general public–because the best editing is the kind that doesn’t become a spectacle but supports the narrative by communicating the plot and emotion of the story. Communicating the unsettling tone and shocking moments in the film is first-time composer William Arcane. From the writing to acting to the technical elements, this film provides a highly entertaining, and at times terrifying, story!

I See You may not be for everyone, but the intended audience will definitely enjoy it! The types of people that will enjoy this most are those whom already enjoy the non-supernatural Lynch, Craven, Hitchcock, and Craven movies. With the nonlinear storytelling, there was such a possibility of failing in the execution, but director Randall crafts an excellent thriller that will have you wanting to rewatch it to see all the clues you missed before. Even though it is definitely rewatchable once, I do not feel that it is the kind of movie that will be continually rewatchable through the years. However, it is certainly a solid selection for your enjoyment, especially if psychological thrillers are your thing.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“A Simple Favor” full movie review

Sleek, stylish, sexy! The best “lifetime movie” ever. Either the marketing of this film was the most misleading or the most brilliant! And yes, I truly believe that lifetime movie is a legit subgenre of suspense. Dark comedy meets neo-noir in this fantastic movie. It’s twisted and fun! Thrilling and comedic, Paul Feig’s film engages in a delicate balancing act that required extreme precision to ensure that the film not make any movement, miss a beat, or gloss over a turning point that could have would up disastrous. Much in the same way Feig’s Spy struck brilliant balance between comedy and serious spy movie, he proves that he has the ability to replicate the approach. Gives me hope for the highly anticipated Spy sequel that rumor has is happening. But we will have to wait and see if that rumor comes to fruition. Containing solid performances from Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, the film also comments on the mind games woman and mothers play with one another. In fact, A Simple Favor delivers some unconventional yet thought-provoking commentary on motherhood and parenting. For all the commentary in the film, it never tries to be preachy or dogmatic about how women and mothers should behave or treat one another. Various parenting styles are played around with in hilarious ways. While the plot may seem like a satire or parody of Gone Girl, there is enough that is different that is certainly feels like a unique movie. There is nothing accidental about how all the elements came together to give us a fantastic movie; everything is intentionally executed with extreme care in order to deliver a lifetime movie that is suspenseful and, at times, slapstick funny.

Be careful when you fulfill a simple favor from a friend. Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a simple mom who’s extremely active in his son’s school and runs a successful “mommy” vlog. Emily is the director of public relations for a major fashion brand and is never active in her son’s school. Through a series of unpredictable events, Stephanie and Emily become best friends, even though on the surface, they couldn’t be any different from one another. One day, Emily asks Stephanie for a “simple favor” to pick her son up from school because of a work emergency. It soon becomes clear that Emily is not coming home. And Emily then begins a investigation into the disappearance of her friend. After the cops get involved, the mystery takes a turn for the bizarre, and Emily must find out what happened to her friend and mother Emily.

Immediately, the opening stylistic credit sequence informs me that this is not going to be a typical murder-mystery movie. The title sequence reminds me of the same one Feig used for Spy. Amidst the angular single color designs are images of women’s fashion. One of the takeaways from the trailer was the amazing costume design and fashion in the film. Setting the tone for a sexy thriller is successfully accomplished in using this imagery. It’s a throwback to the style of the 1960s spy movies that featured women in killer attire that was absolutely perfect in every way. Much like in television, movies have largely moved away from artistic opening title sequences. What I love about a creative opening title sequence is that it can set the tone for the rest of the movie. Think of it as the cover art or preface of a book. Since this movie is based on a book, I like how the opening title sequence seems to be a manifestation of the cover or opening of the book. From the opening title sequence effectively communicating the tone of what we are about to watch, the opening scenes of the film inform us precisely who Stephanie and Emily are. Stephanie is almost a caricature of an enthusiastic crazed Martha Stewart mom juxtaposed against Emily’s high-fashioned, corporate power cynical mom who still loved her kid. Conflict should derive from character interactions even before the plot creates conflict, and this film gives us two characters that provide exceptional and comedic conflict right at the beginning. The characters draw you into the story. It is obvious that the characters were developed first.

Before we even talk about the commentary on motherhood, there is a lot to explore in the respective personalities of Emily and Stephanie. Each personality and worldview is incredibly unique. What isn’t unique between the leading ladies is the fact that they are both incredibly intense individuals. Stephanie pours her tenacity into her vlog and being a “perfect mom” whereas Emily pours her energy into her career and keeping everyone who wants to gets close to her at bay. While Stephanie is enamored with Emily, she misses some indicators that there is something not quite right with Emily. But because of her desire to be friends with Emily, Stephanie chooses to overlook Emily’s bizarre behavior. Behavior that would drive the rest of us away such as being taken advantaged of, belittling, patronizing, just to name a few. There is a scene in which Emily snaps at Stephanie for taking a candid picture with an attitude that could cut glass. There is something Emily admires about Stephanie too. Stephanie’s constant positivity and genuine authenticity. Qualities that Emily does not have. And Stephanie admires the hyper-sexualization of Emily. In many ways, what makes them different, actually complements one another. Yin and Yang.

Beyond the mystery of A Simple Favor, which I won’t explore because it would spoil the plot, there is a subtext of commentary on motherhood. Both are mothers, yet one of them is clearly the femme fatal. The film sets Emily up as the femme fatal from the moment she steps out of her Porsche in the killer suit and devilish stiletto heels, topped with a fedora directly out of a film noir. Stephanie is the poster-child overachieving mom with her volunteering, smart mom outfits, and baking. Each is essentially an extreme of their respective type of mom. The unconventional intimacy between Emily and Stephanie allows Feig to have the support for the dramatic shifts and turning points in the plot. Whether you may be a dedicated stay-at-home mom (which, can be a full-time job–let’s be honest) or a jet-setting corporate work-life balance mom, the pressures of motherhood (or more broadly parenting for all the fathers out there) can bring out the worst in someone. While day spas, laughter, makeovers, or a glass of wine on a balcony may be perfectly fine most of the time to provide relief from the stresses of parenthood, sometimes a mom (or dad) needs something a bit more engaging, tawdry, hair-let-down, steamy, and intriguing. Something that provides some much-needed disorder to keep things interesting. And that is precisely what happens in A Simple Favor. Instead of taking either extreme position from which to be a parent, perhaps the best answer lies somewhere in the middle. Don’t forget that even overachievers need to let their hair down.

If you enjoyed Gone Girl and Spy, then you will undoubtedly enjoy this brilliant thriller that is both suspenseful and funny. Paul Feig is proving that he can consistently walk that fine line between comedy and thriller or comedy and suspense in order to deliver films that take themselves seriously as both a comedy and a more serious work. Furthermore, Feig proves that he can provide an excellent platform for charismatic female actors to showcase the range of their talent. A Simple Favor delivers a plot that is simple yet contains many intricate pieces and surprise reveals. You will be completely engaged the whole time.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Searching” Spoiler-Free Full Review

Remarkably spellbinding! Searching takes the concept of “screen life” movies to impeccable levels. Although the concept of a film relying entirely on computer screens is not new, this is the first time that it has been executed perfectly. The first wide-release film to take this approach was 2015’s Unfriended, and it was quite the pioneer in its approach to essentially adapting Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with the end result being pretty good. The following films to take the approach, including the more recent Unfriended: Dark Web, failed to tell a coherent story. Learning from the successes and failures of this cinematic concept of the past “computer screen” films, writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, along with co-writer/producer Sev Ohanian, crafts a suspenseful thriller that truly understands the power of the internet and how it enables and affects our actions. There is genuine emotion felt in this film. You will truly care about the lead characters and remain hooked for the entire film. Chaganty seems to have taken a page right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook for suspenseful storytelling that relies upon character development, twists of the everyday, and only use on-screen violence or graphic details to supplement the story. This tension-filled voyeuristic crime drama is successfully created–not through viruses, the supernatural, dark web or illegal activities–but through the mundane things we do everyday. Perhaps this film uses modern technologies to tell the story, but the soul of this film is brilliant old-fashioned suspense. And that solid foundation is why this film will do incredibly well.

Following the tragic death of wife and mother Pam, David (John Cho) and his daughter Margot are forced to move on with their lives, doing their best to cope with the loss of their loved one. Over the couple of years since his wife’s death, David and his daughter have drifted apart but still maintain a relationship. Loss of a mother and wife has a major impact upon a family. After Margot fails to return home after a study group session at a classmate’s house and repeated unreturned texts and phone calls, David fears that something terrible has happened to his daughter. When another classmate informs David that Margot never showed for a trip on which she was invited, David reports her as missing to the police. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) heads up the investigation into the whereabouts of Margot that immediately leads nowhere. Lead after lead leads the investigation to believe that Margot may have simply ran away. Convinced that his daughter did not run away, because of so many elements of the investigation not adding up, David turns to the one piece of evidence that was initially overlooked by the police, Margot’s laptop. Following the cookie crumbs left in the seemingly mundane websites visited by Margot, David begins to connect the dots that will hopefully lead him to what happened to his daughter.

No spoilers here. In fact, I urge those who have seen it to NOT spoil it for everyone else. In a manner of speaking, this film feels very much like Psycho must’ve felt when it was released. Hitchcock mandated that no one be allowed to enter the auditorium after the movie began; and furthermore, he insisted on an adherence to strict show times. In fact, much of how our modern cineplexes are run today are a product, in part, by the release of Psycho. The closest I will get to spoiling is informing you that there is an amazing twist ending. Just when you think the story is coming to a close, watch out! Taking what Unfriended (the original, not crappy indirect sequel) did well, and learning from what Dark Web failed to do, Chaganty’s Searching provides audiences with a fantastic experience visually, and anchors the plot with strategic, effective emotional beats.

The story is just as much emotional as it is visual. Possibly even more emotionally and psychologically-driven than the images the frame can capture. Whereas other films that rely upon what we do on our computers fail to have genuine, authentic characters, Searching depicts everyday, real life people doing what millions of others do. How often have many of us been able to talk to complete strangers about something that we are uncomfortable talking to our family or closest friends about? That is precisely what Margot does. Providing additional commentary on the mediation of society through digital media, Chaganty highlights our digital selves versus our actual selves. This is evident in the healthy social life Margot was leading her dad to believe she was experiencing; when in actuality, she was quite alone and simply focussed on school work and little else. David realizes that he didn’t know his daughter at all.

Previous “computer screen” concept movies pretty much involved never leaving the primary computer screen–easily becoming visually exhausting. Chaganty’s thriller chooses to switch from iMac, to iPhone, to PC (with Windows XP), to online news footage. These changes prohibit the setting from ever becoming too familiar or boring. The minor changes keep the senses heightened. Hitchcock earned his moniker by consistently delivering suspenseful cinematic excellence; and this suspense was executed with visual precision coupled with strong emotion. Chaganty very much patterns his modern suspenseful crime drama after the exemplary work of Hitchcock. Different from previous films using real-time on a computer to allow the plot to unfold, this film takes place over a week–closer to more traditional “movie time.” One may be inclined to conclude that the tension feel less intense because of not watching the plot unfold in real time, but that is definitely not true with Searching.

From the moment Margot’s missed facetime and phone calls fail to waken her father to the heart-pounding conclusion, the tension is in high gear. Hitchcock describes suspense as the having to do with the audience having sympathy for the characters and an intense need for something dramatic or shocking to happen. While the audience does not want something bad to happen to the lead characters, they are still at the movie in hopes that something terrible happens. Ironic, isn’t’ it? Much like Hitch delivered suspense through information, Chaganty does the very much the same with Searching. Another way Hitch delivered and ensured a suspenseful atmosphere in his films was having two important events happing concurrently. With David and Vick very much leading their own investigations respectively, we often experience this dichotomy. And Hitch is certainly famous for his twits, and this film contains some fantastic red herrings and twists to the tension-filled plot.

Presently in a limited release, with the film opening everywhere August 31st, Searching is a phenomenal whodunit build upon effective suspense and visceral tension. You will be glued to the plot and feel the emotional rollercoaster experienced by David as he searches for his daughter. Chaganty has proven himself through demonstrable evidence that he understands suspenseful storytelling. Because the film exists in the everyday world we live in, it may get you thinking twice about the degree to which your own life is mediated by technology. The social commentary in the movie also reminds us to be ever vigilant who we correspond with through live video and chats. For you never know to whim you are really speaking.

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