GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY. What makes a movie a Christmas movie? I recently listened to a podcast in which a host floated the idea that the best holiday movies are ones that encourage reflection on the past year and prepare us for the year ahead. They were inspired by watching It's a Wonderful Life. Personally, I think a good holiday movie is one you're eager to unwrap like a present, which is how I found myself perched on the couch in the waning hours of Christmas Day watching Rian Johnson's sequel to Knives Out, wiggling my toes and eating Nutella straight out of the jar. I have been looking forward to this film for a long time, even more so when I heard it contained a cameo from the recently late, infamously great Angela Lansbury, whose appearance was the last of her 80-year career. I was not looking for inspiration or #lifegoals. I did not want an opportunity to reflect on 2022, a year that was disorienting, sad and included a lot of painful growth on both a national and personal level. I just wanted to be entertained. And I was. But as I watched Janelle Monae's character bash apart a beautifully designed puzzle box to get to the mystery inside (not really a spoiler, it happens in the first five minutes), I realized I had perhaps set my expectations too low.
As a writer and director, Johnson exercises a degree of control that might be nauseatingly precious in the hands of a different creator. (I'm not going to say who I'm thinking of but it rhymes with Schmess Schmanderson.) What could be a heavy hand is steadied by a consistent irreverence. Each of the main characters in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is accessorized with a humor and precision that stops just short of caricature, from the TED Radio Hour tote bag carried by super-mom politician Claire Debella (Katherine Hahn) to the fishnet COVID mask worn by vapid fashion influencer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson). In an interview with Sam Briger for Fresh Air, Johnson espoused a love of Agatha Christie novels and their film adaptations, particularly director John Guillermin's 1978 Death on the Nile. That film had an incredible cast that included Lansbury but also Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith and Bette Davis. Johnson has become adept at assembling similar heavyweights whose talents seem to burnish one another rather than stealing anyone's shine. In Glass Onion we're not only treated to Edward Norton as a pretentious tech bro and Dave Bautista as Duke Cody, an influencer/Ed Hardy shirt come to life, but also cameos by Natashia Lyonne, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Stephen Sondheim and Yo-Yo Ma. The costuming also pays homage to vintage Christie adaptations — note the fez worn by scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.).
Johnson's love of classic mysteries with their sleight-of-hand, dual perspectives and Chekovian guns shines through in every twist of the plot, which owes homage to such Christie classics as A Murder is Announced and And Then There Were None. There may also be some Hercule Poirot plot points I missed, but I'm a Marpelite, not a Poirogi. At any rate, the character studies that become the key to unlocking the killer's identity are pure Miss Marple, a "fluffy old woman" with a keen eye for small town evil. Oh yes, Daniel Craig is also in this, reprising his role as detective Benoit Blanc aka the world's worst mystery party guest with a fritter-fried accent. But he cedes much of the action to Monae's character, who dominates scenes with both small, expressive twitches and grand acts of burn-it-down physicality.
Returning briefly to Lansbury: I have loved her as an actor and as a person for more than 30 years. She had enormous talent, grace and diligence and her oeuvre of work got me through some tough times, the way calling a favorite aunt might. My nerdiness about her has been so front-facing and palpable that when she died my phone started buzzing with texts from friends checking in on me. I thought her cameo in this movie, playing herself on a Zoom call with some equally famous friends as they tried to cheer up the pandemic-depleted Blanc, was very in character. She once replied to an adoring letter I wrote to her with a hand-written thank you note of her own, one of my most cherished possessions. With this in mind, I warned my editor that this review could be "90 percent Lansbury." The fact that it's a much smaller percentage is a tribute to the craftsmanship of Johnson's film, which happily skews from the gimmickry of so many modern mysteries, making a genre that's more than 100 years old feel suddenly fresh. It's also an acknowledgement that a new year is dawning, and maybe it's time to say fond goodbye to former icons and embrace a new way of being, eschewing manipulation and pomposity to smash straight through to what matters. PG13. 139M. NETFLIX.
Linda Stansbury's (she/her) 220-page memoir Stansberry on Lansbury awaits fiscal sponsorship.
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Catching up with the blue cat aliens 10 years later in James Cameron's sequel starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver and Kate Winslet. PG13. 192M. BROADWAY (3D), MILL CREEK (3D), MINOR.
BABYLON. A messy tale of Hollywood excess and ambition in the 1920s, starring Margot Robbie, lately sketchy Brad Pitt and Diego Calva. R. 189M. MINOR.
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER. RIP, Chadwick Boseman. The Marvel comic franchise continues with Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke and Tenoch Huerta Mejía as an amphibian king. PG13. 116M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH. Sequel spinoff starring the swashbuckling cat voiced by Antonio Banderas. With Salma Hayek. PG. 100M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
STRANGE WORLD. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaboukie Young-White and Gabrielle Union voice an animated adventure about a family of explorers. PG 102M. BROADWAY.
VIOLENT NIGHT. David Harbour stars as BAMF Santa, who stumbles onto a Christmas heist and goes Die Hard on John Leguizamo's elite team of bad guys. R. 101M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
Fotruna Theatre is temporarily closed due to earthquake damage. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.