Rian Johnson’s latest stab at Wes Anderson-does-Clue has a lesser cast, a more pandering script, and a wholly phony “Eat the Rich” political angle. Thankfully, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery also has the same sleuth from the first Knives Out, and Daniel Craig is just as good, if not better — still getting a lot of laughs out of the simple set-up of his folksy, Foghorn Leghorn-adjacent drawl cropping up between lengthy monologues from scheming wealthy ne’er-do-wells. This time, Detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) is dropped surreptitiously onto an advanced tech-equipped island with a cabal of rich celebrity sycophants, all invited for a weekend getaway/murder mystery party by their Steve Jobs-like ringleader, Miles Bron (Edward Norton).
One of the more obnoxious “choices” in this film is to introduce us to its near-full cast right at the outset with a chaotic montage that almost seems to suppose we should know who everyone is already, though in reality what Johnson is doing is mistaking the collection of thinly written stock types (and one-note performances) for more compelling characterizations. It’s all insufferably vapid, and it doesn’t so much feed us any information of who these characters are as it does pack a lot of very lame visual gags and one-liners into a very dense sequence. That sugar rush largely continues for most of Glass Onion’s first act, which leans heavily on plug-and-play joke schematics that amount to people gesturing to made-up products like “Jeremy Renner’s hot sauce” and “Jared Leto’s kombucha” — right up until the film recycles the same trick from the first Knives Out, doubling back to re-examine its narrative from another, unexpected angle.
Partly by design, Glass Onion never musters the same level of inter-connected relationship drama and windy narrative detail that informed the contours of the mystery in Knives Out, and the reason for that becomes cause for a modestly funny joke. (Basically, Blanc’s attempts to solve this mystery, he finally realizes, have been thwarted at every turn because his master analytical mind hasn’t accounted for how “stupid” the murderer is.) That self-aware copout would be easier to take if Glass Onion didn’t also try to mount some kind of earnest class commentary — pretty rich (pun intended) for a movie with a $469m Netflix price tag, some of which ostensibly went to a completely pointless licensing fee for that Beatles song in the title.
The concept of “the disrupters” — the group of pseudo-radical influencers, politicians, and innovators assembled by Norton’s Miles and his ex-wife Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) — is one that Johnson intends to use to blow up the spot of people who think breaking social norms is cool and subversive. But that doesn’t amount to much more than pandering liberal pablum here, and by the end of Glass Onion, any serious engagement with those ideas is abandoned for a cheaper, easier anarchism that never squares itself with this film’s own lavish production. Anyway, what saves Glass Onion, when one can ignore its more taxing excesses and ideological shortcomings, is Johnson’s enduring interest in puzzles, a quality which won him some earned recognition for the original Knives Out, as someone thinking about whodunnit mechanics in a way that hasn’t been seen in mainstream American cinema for awhile. There’s a bit of that here; one just wishes the cleverness of those ideas wasn’t so exhaustingly padded-out with the more hollow “cleverness” of this film’s endless pop culture references.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
In what can be construed both as commendation and criticism, Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N. is assuredly a film of the times. Its contemporary grappling with hot-button issues, alongside its pointedly liminal geographic setting, enables a somewhat twofold diagnosis of political and ideological relationships, from the positions of both oppressor and oppressed, aggressor and defender. Instantly recognizable within Mungiu’s frames is his drab, brutal realism: the director of 2007’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has faithfully upheld his representational tradition of depicting both internal and generational trauma through the smoldering eye of unflinching static shots, and the centerpiece of R.M.N. is, predictably, one such sequence. Lasting over seventeen minutes, this sequence finds the inhabitants of a Transylvanian village congregated at a town hall meeting, airing their disputes over the fates of three Sri Lankan factory workers while the atmosphere within festers with conflict and hatred. As with most of Mungiu’s oeuvre, such a pivotal moment constitutes the film’s thesis — Romania is in a state of rot, and it might be too late to do anything about it.
R.M.N. begins elsewhere actually, in a German industrial town, where Matthias (Marin Grigore) tenders his resignation at a slaughterhouse by virtue of a headbutt to his racist foreman. He returns to his hometown, a vague, unnamed space occupied by ethnic Romanians and Hungarians, as well as German-speaking nationalities, where he attempts to reunite with his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) and son, Rudi (Mark Edward Blenyesi). It’s the Christmas season, so Matthias’ sudden and disheveled appearance only exacerbates the discomfort brimming around town when unexpected happenings — hitherto undisclosed — transpire in the neighboring forests. Little Rudi, upon sighting something on his way to school, refuses to speak for days. Matthias’ old lover, Csilla (Judith State), manages the bread factory which comes to the forefront of controversy after employing immigrants, the three aforementioned Sri Lankans included. Matthias and Csilla dance around the dying embers of their dead flame, him a little more enthusiastically than her; to her, he’s little more than the desperate remnants of a cultural masculinity washed away by time; she, conversely, stands for all that the new West embodies (wealth, comfort, good taste), desired and despised by those left behind in equal measure.
With formal restraint and symbolic penchant, Mungiu delineates a geography of ethnic and cultural anxiety through the relative microcosm of Matthias’ village, rendering the uneasy ground between the high heavens and low subalterns with an immediacy that’s at once tempered by the camera’s austere, almost detached gaze. The violence perpetrated by xenophobic sentiment is given both origin and outlet, and in R.M.N. we bear witness to the predictable laundry list of talking points that have, sadly, christened themselves as such: globalization, disenfranchisement, populism, liberalism, identity politics, and the like. That liberal ideals and socio-economic realities are frustratingly incompatible on the ground is accepted as the film’s starting premise, but Mungiu does not entirely launch into teleprompted agitprop in quick defense of either. Instead, there’s a veritable tension encoded into its confrontations and binaries between old and young, rich and poor, skilled and unskilled; a tension that can’t quite be shaken off, neither with sentimental appeal nor by statistical means.
A hanging, to vaguely introduce a spoiler, takes place, but its intentions and details are — even by the film’s denouement — not fully made known. In truth, the limits of social realism in general, and Mungiu’s in particular, serve as conditional strengths when displayed in full; to the director’s credit, little room is made for melodramatic aestheticization, and any of it’s arguably more a conditioned perception symptomatic of industrial capitalization in the wake of Trump and Brexit rather than the film’s own doing. There is, however, something wryly amusing about the apparent double entendre espoused by its title: R.M.N., wrongly attributed to Romania as its abbreviation (the actual shorthand is “RO”), also refers to “rezonanță magnetică nucleară,” the brain scan Matthias’ aging father undertakes amidst all the psychological tumult. For about two hours, R.M.N. embroils the viewer in this tumult, goading less knee-jerk outbursts than it inspires muted helplessness. Then, in the last five minutes, Mungiu indulges slightly in the surreal, with ambivalent results: there’s a sense of possible change and renewal, modulated by the deeper realization that the state of man mirrors the state of nature, and that, perhaps, there really might not be any way out after all.
Writer: Morris Yang
Decision to Leave
Tang Wei remains one of the great actresses of our time, here building another variation on the femme fatale role, one entirely different from the one she played in Bi Gan’s 2018 Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In that film, she was the lost object, mysterious and opaque, dreamt about by the forlorn hero doomed to relive the failures of the past in a visit to his hometown. She plays a much more active role in Decision to Leave, the latest from Park Chan-wook, befitting the difference in the two films’ tones and approaches. Where Bi lets his story play out in long, often inexplicable scenes, culminating in a 45-minute long sequence shot that reconfigures the film’s first half into an eerily realistic dreamscape, Park piles case after case and plot twist onto plot twist in a convoluted detective story, making it seem more complex than it really is but never losing the vibe central to noir romance: a man and a woman doomed by desire.
Park Hae-il (The Host, Hansan: Rising Dragon) plays the detective, investigating the death of a middle-aged mountain climber. Tang plays the victim’s wife, a Chinese immigrant who cheerfully introduces herself by saying she doesn’t speak Korean very well. Park immediately suspects her of the crime, but is also unavoidably drawn to her because she’s so, so pretty. His investigation of her swiftly devolves into insomnia-fueled stakeouts of her home, with Park (Hae-il) listening to recordings of her daily routines while narrating his thoughts about her into his telephone. Phones, recordings, Google translations — these are all key motifs in the film, and as the characters’ relationship deepens, Park conjoins them both visually (inserting the detective into Tang’s home as he surveils her and imagines how she may have committed the crime) and aurally (the sound of one heard by another, mediated by the omnipresent phones which both record and transform language), only to abruptly split them apart. Mechanical translations prove to be as unreliable as visions.
Red herrings abound to distract us from the central plot — another case involving murderous obsessive love; Park’s partner chasing down suspects and possibly beating them; Park’s odd but loving wife, a nuclear technician with a fondness for repeating facts she’s learned but who ultimately lacks the passionate insanity Tang hides within an almost completely controlled exterior, the combination of which proves so irresistible to our hero. Most of all, despite the overwhelming mood of a romantic tragedy, Park keeps us in doubt all the way through about Tang’s true nature. Is she really a killer? Does she really love the detective? We don’t know any more than he does. Park rides that uncertainty as long as he can, until, as it must, it all comes crashing down, like waves crashing on an empty beach.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Timing is everything, and because of that, Stéphane Lafleur’s latest film Viking will likely draw comparisons with The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder’s HBO show about simulation and risk-aversion. That’s because, in its own fictional way, Viking mines the same essential concepts but for rather different purposes. While I don’t think it’s productive to argue “who wore it better” in this case, one thing is clear. By creating a fictional scenario in which individuals are trapped inside a simulacrum of reality, Lafleur avoids the ethical dilemmas that have made Fielder’s show such a hot topic within the mediasphere. If Viking is not as dangerous as The Rehearsal, it does what only art can do: provide a closed framework for philosophical investigation within an environment of relative safety.
[SPOILERS BEGIN HERE]
As Viking opens, we see David (Steve Laplante), a phys ed coach, undergoing a psychological evaluation, answering true or false to various questions, such as “I take my dreams seriously” and “I would like to partake in cannibalism.” We learn that David has passed the exam, and has been selected by the Canadian Space Administration to take part in a mission to Mars. He will be away from his girlfriend (Marie-Laurence Moreau) and his friends for nearly 2 ½ years, and he cannot divulge the details of his journey. But soon thereafter, we learn exactly what he’s been chosen to do.
You see, there is already a five-person team in space heading to Mars. But there have been procedural and, mostly, emotional conflicts among the crew. So, using a battery of tests, the Space Administration has selected five new individuals whose psych profiles match the ones of the actual astronauts. The new group will take part in an immersive simulation activity in the desert, performing facsimiles of the Mars teams’ jobs, so that those running the mission from Earth can figure out how to ease the burden of the men and women who are really in space.
Lafleur has taken a relatively silly conceit and imbued it with serious textual and meta-textual considerations. David must stop being “David” and become “John,” his Mars-bound “original.” Each of the participants is supposed to leave their real identities behind and become their assigned astronaut, regardless of discrepancies in gender, age, or actual psychological makeup. They are supposed to replicate the tensions and hostilities that exist among the Mars group, and are repeatedly told that the lives of the real team are riding on the success of this scientific Method acting.
Lafleur wisely leaves certain obvious tensions, such as racial and gender disparity, unremarked upon, in part because he wants us to see just how foolhardy this experiment really is. At the same time, Viking achieves real insights about the nature of simulation and its possible imbrication with what we perceive to be reality. In many ways, Viking most closely resembles Leigh Ledare’s underseen 2017 documentary The Task, wherein a group of participants go into a room to have intensive discussions about the act of discussion itself, its power dynamics, and the ways that, even in simulation, identities can become unstable. In one shot, Lafleur replicates a well-known scene from 2001, but then later apes an equally memorable scene from The Shining, suggesting that there may be more in common between these two Kubrick masterworks than meets the eye. If someone somewhere else has decided our every move, and free will is reduced to merely occupying a given role, then have we perhaps moved beyond the quaint notion of the Self? Lafleur cannot say for sure, but I’m glad we are having this conversation.
Writer: Michael Sicinski
On the occasion of him winning the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for his film Shoplifters, I called Hirokazu Kore-eda “the Ron Howard of the international art house circuit.” The intervening years, and a look at Kore-eda’s latest, have done nothing to convince me that this comparison is inaccurate. Both are very skilled directors who deliver exactly what their audiences expect, and almost never anything more than that. Howard’s audience is more mainstream, so he gives them a bit more excitement: quips, special effects, movie stars giving speeches, and so on. Kore-eda’s audience, the international art house circuit, assure themselves that they are above such things, and so he withholds the more obvious indicators of audience pandering, giving his viewers strong movie actor performances, jokes that are amusing but never inspire true laughter, quiet scenes of emotional turmoil, artfully framed images of lovely landscapes and thoroughly decorated homes or hotel rooms. Kore-eda is, above all, tasteful.
Broker is a perfectly nice film about the formation of an unconventional family unit on a road trip. It features international arthouse stars like Song Kang-ho and Bae Doona, the former as the eponymous broker who sells unwanted children to parents who for one reason or another can’t or won’t legally adopt, the latter as the cop on Song’s trail as he and his partner (Gang Dong-won) attempt to sell just such an infant. Tagging along with the brokers is the child’s mother (Lee Ji-eun, also known as the singer IU), who initially abandoned her baby at a local orphanage but changed her mind and came back for him, only to find that Song and Gang had sidetracked him into their own illegal business. She goes along to make sure the child finds a good home, as well as to share in the profits. Along the way, traveling in a beat-up van from picturesque town to picturesque town across Korea, the three share meaningful thoughts and emotions about parenthood and abandonment. A visit to Gang’s old orphanage results in the addition of a new family member — a young soccer fan who stows away in the van — and thus the makeshift clan is complete.
This is all in the same territory as Shoplifters, and Kore-eda doesn’t find anything new to weave into the scenario. Bae, for a while, brings a prickly edge to her part, serving as a kind of chorus to pop up once a reel or so to remind us that these people are actually child traffickers. And there’s even talk of a murder or two and other criminal activity, but Kore-eda would never be so gauche as to actually display such unpleasantries. At least not in this kind of movie: he’s made darker films of course, his previous Bae Doona collaboration Air Doll, for example, taking a sick turn albeit one that’s to be expected in an ultimately classy riff on the exploitation film. Broker even throws in an explicit nod to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, another art house classic about the complex relationships between parents and children. Of course, not content to merely let Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” play on the soundtrack, Kore-eda has to underline this connection by having Bae hold her phone out in the middle of a conversation with her significant other and say “hey, it’s the song from that movie we watched!” Despite the best efforts of his actors, there’s just nothing subtle, nothing unexpected about Broker. It’s the kind of film where everyone always thinks of the children and things all work out for the best and everyone learns that families built on forgiveness and mutual self-sacrifice come in all shapes and sizes and love conquers all and even Bae’s hardened cop heart is melted by the adorable powers of the divine moppet.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Thanks to its quite odd pairing of collaborators, Sick is a movie awkwardly pulled in two directions at once. On the one hand, you have director John Hyams — who cut his teeth on two Universal Soldier movies, both with a big cult fanbase — bringing to this slasher his exceedingly brutal action choreography and viscerally intense aestheticization of that action (the hard, dull thud of body blows, the sharp crack of breaking bones), thereby allowing the genre a sense of real danger and immediacy it’s been lacking. On the other hand, you have screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who once gave the slasher a needed shot in the arm when he authored Wes Craven’s Scream (as well as the other entries in that series’ original quadrilogy). Administering the antidote of meta-text and self-awareness to the slasher in the mid-’90s, when all the competition was stuck adhering to the same repeatable formula, was a stroke of genius. But as 2011’s Scream 4 made painfully clear, what was appropriate for that time just isn’t the right way to challenge a chronically online generation for whom Scream is the formula, not the subversion.
Williamson, evidently, didn’t get that message. Sick’s screenplay is built around another winkingly self-aware conceptual gambit, albeit one obviously more geared toward our present moment: The slashing takes place at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the two primary targets, college roommates Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Bethlehem Million), have just started self-isolating together at the former’s big empty family cottage. There’s one immediate problem with this set-up — with only two characters to work with, how do you run up a body count? Williamson addresses this with the familiar trick of a pre-credits kill, and it’s also around this time that Sick establishes just how much social media will play a role in bringing more people into the narrative’s orbit. But aside from a few stern conversations about mask-wearing, keeping a six-foot distance from each other, and Miri’s comical penchant for spraying disinfectant all over everything she sees, Covid is only a light reality for the first half of Sick. And the point at which that does finally change, during a typically expository final act that makes explicit just how much Covid is motivating the action of the killers, is also when Sick succumbs to parody, or even worse, becomes just a thinly veiled rehash of Scream 4.
Thankfully, there’s a solid hour or so here that largely ignores the conceptual frame and just throws a couple of resourceful girls into battle with some all-dressed-in-black ninja assassins who’ve broken into their house. I haven’t seen Hyams’ only other stab at a thriller, 2020’s wilderness-set kidnapper flick Alone, but if that film musters the same practical suspense, the almost survivalist minutiae of tending to wounds and relying on tools of the surrounding environment to try and outmaneuver an ever-present threat — and does so without the distraction of Williamson — it’s now priority viewing. Hyams unabashedly treats the action in Sick not unlike he does in his Universal Soldier films, if only less choreographed to account for the amateur fighters on one side of the struggle. He does overly rely on his shaky cam and close-ups, especially during the first kill, but the way he dynamically moves the action through the space of the empty cottage, around the property, and to one particularly impressive night-time set piece at the center of a lake is consistently inventive and, most importantly, scary — which is the right combination of stimulants needed to reinvigorate this genre.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
Carolina Markowicz’s debut feature-length film Charcoal posits a simple moral quandary — would you put an infirm elderly person out of their misery for the right price? Irene (Maeve Jinkings) spends her days tending to her invalid father Firmino (Benedito Alves), as well as her layabout husband Jairo (Romulo Braga) and young son Jean (Jean Almeida da Costa). The family’s charcoal factory has seen better days, and money is hard to come by (Irene barely makes ends meet by cooking for friends and neighbors). She’s at her wit’s end when a new nurse named Juracy (Aline Marta) unexpectedly stops by to check on Firmino’s oxygen tank. Casually explaining that she has replaced Firmino’s old caretaker, Juracy bombards Irene with a no-holds-barred assessment of Firmino’s condition — he will never get any better, and will be in more and more discomfort as time goes on. She then presents a modest proposal — dispose of Firmino, a mercy killing of sorts, and in his stead host an Argentinian drug lord who has faked his own death and needs a place to hide out. Irene is taken aback by the woman’s idea, but she also doesn’t say no. After a halfhearted chat with the local priest, in which Irene hopes to preemptively absolve herself of any lingering guilt, she wheels Firmino over to the factory and dumps him into a furnace. Shortly thereafter, Don Miguel (César Bordón) is delivered to their doorstep. This all transpires in a few minutes of screen time; Markowicz doesn’t drag out this ethical dilemma, as she’s more interested in the aftermath of the family’s decision. This is ultimately a story of utilitarian, practical need versus the hard reality of an uncaring universe where only the strong survive.
Don Miquel is immediately unhappy with his lodgings; a man of means, it is inconceivable to him to live amidst such poverty. Miguel and Jairo constantly butt heads, two desperate men still impotently trying to prove some masculine dominance over even these most inconsequential of surroundings. And young Jean seems entirely too fascinated by their guest, this symbol of a new kind of life beyond the confines of the simple village Jean knows all too well. The film progresses along these lines, as Miguel settles into his new surroundings while his presence gradually alters his host family, his influence snaking through each family member in unexpected ways. Jairo uses the family’s windfall of ill-gotten gains to buy an expensive gift for his lover, while Jean impresses the neighborhood kids with sodas and candy from the local confectionery. Even the stoic Irene succumbs to an impulse purchase, procuring herself an expensive bottle of perfume that she squirrels away like a talisman, an object representing some sort of upper-class fantasy. While Markowicz plays things fairly straight, there’s some gallows humor here, for sure; Irene has to keep nosy neighbors Luciana (Camila Mardila) and her husband Sergio (Pedro Wagner) away from their secret, while maintaining the ruse that Firmino is still alive and bedridden inside their house. It’s very much a Coen Brothers plot, and there are a couple of nerve-jangling sequences that ramp up enough tension to reasonably call Charcoal a genre film. An unexpected visit from Luciana to pick up a catering order becomes a prolonged sequence of who-knows-what, with Luciana politely but insistently asking to see Firmino to pay her regards. Another running gag finds Don Miguel constantly sneaking away to do drugs, an addiction that will complicate matters as the story goes on.
But for all this dark playfulness, Markowicz’s talent lies in grounding this story in the everyday, quotidian reality of this family. Her keen attention to lived-in details and naturalistic performances suggest an affinity for the neo-realists and especially Marco Bellochio. Jinkings is a remarkable actress, smart and calculating but also harried, so tired of living hand-to-mouth that even this deal with the devil seems reasonable. She carries the film, her maternal and survival instincts driving her to increasingly desperate measures. Charcoal culminates in a second act of murder, which isn’t presented as a moral choice so much as a necessity. Markowicz suggests a perpetual cycle of dog-eat-dog violence that thankfully never tilts into full-blown parable. In fact, there’s not even an inkling of religious allegory here — the Church proves a useless appendage — but instead a cold, unblinking look at what normal people will do to make their way in this world.
Writer: Daniel Gorman