Iceland has a holiday tradition of Jolabokaflod, i.e. “Christmas Book Flood,” in which the very literary populace buys books as presents for one another. They get exchanged on Christmas Eve—and the rest of the evening is spent with everyone reading together. Needless to say, if this custom were common hereabouts, it would increase my enthusiasm for the holidays about a thousandfold.
Nonetheless, even in our own increasingly lit-resistant culture this time of the year probably involves a tad more reading than usual. After all, people on vacation are inclined to pick up a tome occasionally. They’ll usually turn to the comfort food of genre fiction, often mysteries, crime fiction being second only to romance novels in terms of commercial success.
Of course, hoisting a new Kate Atkinson (my only current fave, and it’s stretching matters to call her strictly a mystery writer anyhow), Louise Penny, or whatever you fancy may still be too much effort on a very full holiday stomach. Conveniently, two starry new films have arrived to scratch that itch, both delivering a fairly traditional kind of murder-case sleuthing, though in very different ways, and with different degrees of success.
The serious one is The Pale Blue Eye, which opened at SF’s Opera Plaza, Marin’s Rafael Film Center and San Jose’s 3Below last Friday; it’s on Netflix as of January 6. Based on Louis Bayard’s 2006 best-seller, it’s a historical genre fiction mixing in some real-life events and one notable real-life character. In the Hudson Valley of 1830, at the still-newish West Point military academy (previously it had simply been an army post), a cadet is found hanged. Suicide might be assumed…if his heart hadn’t been assiduously “carved from his chest” after death.
Widowed, somewhat disreputable investigator Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is quietly hired by the authorities to get to the bottom of things, as they fear an internal inquest would stir greater scandal. He finds an unlikely, highly opinionated ally in one very peculiar cadet: None other than young Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), who really was at West Point in the last stretch of his problematic military career, before he turned his hopes towards writing. A figure of unkind fun to his peers, a self-described poet and artiste with a very theatrical air, he nonetheless has eccentric theories and insights about the case that Landor finds valuable.
Meanwhile, however, more mutilated bodies keep turning up, to the flustered dismay of senior figures including ones played by Toby Jones, Timothy Spall, and Robert Duvall. Charlotte Gainsbourg figures as a barmaid who occasionally warms Augustus’ bed, while Lucy Boynton plays a resident doctor’s beautiful, much-desired but also “cursed” (she appears to be epileptic) daughter. Are the bizarre homicides somehow related to the very proper latter lady? Are they part of some kind of Satanic ritual? Don’t worry, you’ll find out.
Very handsomely visualized in a wintry palette of snow, shadow and candlelight, Pale Blue Eye is the latest collaboration between actor turned writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass) and star Bale—their third, following depressed-steel-town crime drama Out of the Furnace and western epic Hostiles. Cooper’s movies have always been interesting, particularly as vehicles for strong performances in potent roles, though they sometimes seem a little off the mark, with Hostiles and last year’s very serious-minded supernatural thriller Antlers arguably the best among them.
Having just made a horror movie, you might expect the director to embrace the Gothic turn Eye increasingly takes. But that turns out not to be his strong suit. He seems hogtied by this story’s whodunnit mechanizations, which unfold intriguingly but a bit ploddingly in a package that is meticulously crafted yet lacks the sinister atmosphere it needs. Nonetheless, this is a respectable effort and reasonably rewarding watch that has its good points. The actors, too, out in good work, though I wish any among them had been half as much fun as Gillian Anderson, who spices things up with a grotesquely amusing performance as Boynton’s waspish mother. She’s having a great time; everyone else here is working hard but a little too in earnest, including ever-angsty Bale and a very twitchy Melling.
Already on Netflix as of last Friday (it had a brief theatrical run—briefer than theater owners apparently wanted—in early December) is the sequel Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. It’s lighter in every possible way, from the comedic tone to the garishly colorful production design. I was not a huge fan of Rian John’s 2019 K.O. original, which seemed to me a coyly contrived semi-spoof of Agatha Christie terrain that was more convoluted than ingenious in plotting, and not nearly as witty as it seemed to think. Nonetheless, it worked for a whole lot of people, and (alongside Kenneth Branaugh’s also somewhat underwhelming actual Christie remakes) announced that audiences were hungry for this kind of upscale-glamorous, somewhat camp, tongue-in-cheek all-star mystery.
So famed sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a kind of Mississippi Delta Hercule Poirot, is back, and bored, because it’s mid-2020—COVID lockdown has shut him off from any intriguing new cases. Thus he jumps at a surprise invitation to an exclusive fete at the island manse of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who dangles the prospect that the weekend will revolve around guests solving his own murder.
Other invitees are the host’s supposed “closest inner circle,” even if they seem more like frenemies. They’re a clutch of so-called “disruptors” including a flamboyantly shallow, culturally insensitive fashion maven (Kate Hudson), a noxious “men’s rights” advocate (Dave Bautista), and a Karen-ish “soccer mom in beige” turned state governor (Kathryn Hahn). There’s also the surprise inclusion of Miles’ aggrieved ex-business partner (Janelle Monae), plus a few relatively nondescript figures in his chief energy-development scientist (Leslie Odom Jr.), the style queen’s more-grounded PA (Jessica Henwick), and the macho blowhard’s predictably young, hot, possibly unfaithful girlfriend (Madelyn Cline).
Amidst the cluttered extravagance of Miles’ palatial getaway—it’s not entirely clear whether this is meant to be a parody of expensive bad taste or not—the festivities begin. His “murder” is just theater, and the solving of that “crime” a parlor game everyone plays. But soon someone drops dead for real. In the subsequent collective panic, ugly secrets about these people and their unpleasant hidden ties to one another start being exposed. Needless to say, we quickly suss that nearly every guest has a motive for wanting to kill nearly everyone else.
As with 2019’s Knives Out, this homage to Christie-type narratives and films wants to both replicate their plotty cleverness and spoof the form, while adding some up-to-the-moment social commentary. But while I’ve liked some of Johnson’s prior projects (especially his indie debut feature Brick), as a writer he is not a natural at the mystery form—his “twists” feel inorganic, arbitrary and forced. Nor does the repartee exactly sparkle, here often sinking to a nadir of celebrity name-dropping and such. It’s the kind of movie that persuades many people they’re having a good time because it keeps telling them they are, with nudge-nudge, wink-wink cavorting from performers whose forte is not comedy. The one gifted player in that regard is Hahn, but she’s thwarted by a one-note harpy role.
As for the social commentary, just as Knives Out delivered a pretty dull, on-the-nose plea on behalf of immigrants, diversity, and economic equality, Glass Onion takes blunt aim at the superrich and their seeming death-grip on our darkening global prospects. Miles is something of an obvious Elon Musk caricature (if such a thing is even possible), a self-appointed innovator and bon vivant who turns out to really just be a guy who buys up other people’s companies and claims their ideas as his own. No target of ridicule could please me more at present. But Johnson’s satire is as obvious and uninspired as Kate Hudson swanning about as an airheaded influencer—a hammer to the nail where a deflating pin-prick would have been more devastating, not to mention funny.
Still, Glass Onion is splashy and antic in ways that are diverting even if you wish it were better as a whole. it sports a closing dedication “for a lifetime of inspiration to Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim.” If you enjoy this movie, you might take that hint and see it done right: Seek out 1973’s The Last of Sheila, a similarly starry, spoofy murder mystery that was musical theater giant Sondheim’s only original screenplay (co-written with actor Anthony Perkins), and 1978’s original Christie-derived Death on the Nile, where the also-recently-deceased Lansbury plays one Mrs. Salome Otterbourne—a glam gargoyle whose comedic panache no one in Onion could touch with a ten-foot grabber pole.
Or you could repair to the newly re-opened, remodeled (now it’s just one larger auditorium) 4 Star Theater, where this Wed/28 through Fri/30 there will be variably mixed double bills of four classic crime movies: The Coen Brothers’ 1996 black comedy slam-dunk Fargo; the all-time vintage noir jewel Double Indemnity (1944) with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray up to no good under the direction of Billy Wilder; Debra Granik’s 2010 Ozarks-set grand guignol Winter’s Bone, which launched Jennifer Lawrence’s stardom; and 1973’s Mean Streets, which did the same for Robert De Niro, and remains arguably Martin Scorcese’s greatest film. For schedule and other info, go here.