Tag: Janelle Monáe

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Johnson’s playful Agatha Christie tributes continue to delight in this affectionate homage

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Edward Norton (Miles Bron), Janelle Monáe (Andi Brand), Kathryn Hahn (Claire Debella), Leslie Odom Jnr (Lionel Toussaint), Kate Hudson (Birdie Joy), Dave Bautista (Duke Cody), Jessica Henwick (Peg), Madelyn Cline (Whiskey), Noah Segan (Derol)

Johnson’s Knives Out reminded Hollywood that people love a good whodunnit. Netflix purchased two more films from the franchise after the first’s success: Glass Onion is the first, a wild, enjoyable and deft mystery, crammed with enough jokes, puzzles, side-mysteries and actors having a good-time to become a perfect Christmas treat.

Set in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – and how unusual again to see everyone wearing a facemask during the first meeting of its characters – it revolves around a weekend get-away at the Greek island mansion of a billionaire, its elaborate design centred around a huge Glass Onion dome. A stack of personalities from wildly divergent backgrounds, thrown together in a secluded location with murder on the cards? You couldn’t get more Agatha Christie unless Hercule Poirot turned up. Instead, we get Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, as outrageously Southern as ever and seemingly invited by mistake to take part in billionaire Miles Bron’s (Edward Norton) murder-mystery weekend for his close friends.

Those close friends are a smorgasbord who all seem to have as much reason to hate Bron as they do for being in debt to him. All are in hock to Bron’s company Alpha and its quest to create a new hydrogen super-fuel. The guests? Kathryn Hahn’s governor of Connecticut (reliant on Bron for funding), Leslie Odom Jnr’s scientist (reliant on Bron for funding), Kate Hudson’s fashion editor (reliant on Bron for her job), Dave Bautista’s influencer (reliant on Bron for Likes), and Janelle Monáe as Bron’s ex-partner, cheated (perhaps) out of the company they co-founded. Will the murder mystery party turn into murder mystery reality?

Johnson’s playful, loving homage to Agatha Christie successfully carries over its tone and sense of fun from Knives Out, delighting in its conventions even as it subtly inverts some of them, and building a classic murder mystery in a very modern skin. It’s possible that no-one is better at this than Johnson, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing something as fun as this so straight. For all the jokes, it never sneers at its material or looks down on the classic Christie model. Instead, it feels like a lost Christie making its way to the screen with a solution that the author would love.

Glass Onion does make part of its effect work by concealing information from the viewer for as long as possible – some characters here are not as they appear and some know much more than they are letting on. It’s not quite the characters you might expect either, who are playing their cards close to their chest. The film dips into a non-linear structure, progressing us through to a killing before winding back to retell all the events we have just witnessed from another perspective. It’s a brilliant way of keeping us on our toes – and most successfully, never feels like cheating but a deliberate bit of rug-pulling to keep the fun going.

It also reminds us to question everything we are seeing as the film unfolds. Like an intricate onion, there are layers upon layers – and like glass when the light reflects right, it suddenly becomes transparent. Everything in Glass Onion is meant to only really become clear by its conclusion – although Johnson drops plenty of hints of what’s going to be important, not least the swiping sound of the protective glass shield that snaps down over Bron’s displayed Mona Lisa (the real one) that he pretentiously shows off to his friends.

Pretentious and self-satisfied showing-off is meat-and-drink to Bron, played with a hugely enjoyable smug smackability by Edward Norton (having the time of his life channelling every arrogant billionaire you can think of, not least Elon Musk). Irritatingly new-age in his ostentatious wealth, every act of Bron (no matter how generous it seems) is laced with self-serving. He delights in (and feeds) his reputation as an eccentric genius and the film’s elaborate set is a testament to Bron’s classless grandiosity.

His hangers-on share deeply mixed feelings about this generous man who demands (with a wining smile) that they dance to any tune that he plays. Even his murder mystery weekend is designed around a chance for him show off (his balloon being well-and-truly burst by Blanc early in the movie is one of its greatest laugh-out-loud moments). Hahn, Odom Jnr, Hudson and Bautista have huge fun with four characters all larger-than-life in their own ways. But Janelle Monáe is the film’s most striking performer: as Bron’s cast-off former partner she gives a performance brimming with complexity and hidden depths.

In all this colour and old-school mystery razzle-dazzle that Johnson serves up, it’s very easy to forget what an essential role Craig plays in holding it together. Blanc remains a loving Poirot tribute, inverting that character’s bizarre accent, dandyish clothes and exactitude but still capturing Poirot’s essential kindness and humanitarianism. Craig quietly carries a lot of the film here, while ceding much of the most striking material to his “guest stars”. It’s fine work.

Johnson’s film is a superb entertainment, the sort of film you can imagine people saying of it “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. It works as extraordinarily well as it does because it manages to be both cool and catchy and hugely old-fashioned. It’s an unabashed entertainment, that wants to puzzle and entertain you. It succeeds at both.

Moonlight (2016)

Mahershala Ali is a mentor with mixed impact in Barry Jenkins tender Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Trevante Rhodes (Adult Chiron/”Black”), Ashton Saunders (Teenage Chiron), Alex Hibbert (Young Chiron/”Little”), André Holland (Adult Kevin), Jharrel Jerome (Teenage Kevin), Jaden Piner (Young Kevin), Naomie Harris (Paula), Mahershala Ali (Juan), Janelle Monáe (Teresa), Patrick Decile (Terrel)

What makes us the people we are? So many things in our environment, personalities and influences can shape the people we are. Imagine, though, how much we might end up twisting and manipulating ourselves, if some of the core parts of what made us who we are, ran against the expectations of our community. It’s the fascinating, poetic heart of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ astonishingly tender Oscar-winner, which shows a side of the Black American experience that so rarely makes it to the screen.

In three acts, we see the life of Chiron, from a young child, to a confused teenager to a muscular, adult drug dealer. Played by a different actor at each age, each self-contained half-an-hour-or-so act sees him struggle with understanding who he is, and deal with the impact that different people have on shaping the man he is, from his mother Paula (Naomi Harris), a woman embracing a destructive drug addiction, to his mentor as a young boy, the thoughtful drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his caring girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Perhaps the core influence however is childhood friend Kevin, the love of Chiron’s life. Because Chiron is struggling with the fact he is gay, in a community where macho masculinity is all important.

Jenkins’ thoughtful and beautifully made film is a wonderful coming-of-age story, that explores deeply emotional territory with sensitivity and care. Jenkins invests the entire story with a beautiful sense of poetry and an echoing, longing sense of sadness. The entire film is constructed of paths not taken, of lost opportunities and painful misunderstandings. It asks profound questions around the people who inspire us, the impact our parents can have, the damaging impact of trying to conform with the world, and the struggle we can take to understand ourselves.

Because the main theme that runs through each act is Chiron’s struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. As a young boy it’s something he’s beginning to be aware of – and the distance it brings, knowing he’s different from his fellow kids. It’s there in the cruel treatment he receives from his mother. As a young boy, there is the potential that his life could go another way – something that his mentor figure, drug dealer Juan, detects (perhaps, the film subtly implies, because it echoes lost opportunities and ignored feelings in Juan’s own life).

The middle act shows how these chances can be truly lost, how our teenage experiences can shake us. Because Chiron is different in a way that will never gain true acceptance in such a macho environment, where Chiron has it enforced to him time and time again that his sexuality is a weakness, something that dirties him and makes him less than others. Jenkins’ film offers a beautiful view of how a teenager can be made to feel ashamed of themselves and the person they are – to the extent that his reaction after his first sexual experience with his childhood friend Kevin is to apologise. Chiron hasn’t been given the emotional confidence or language to be comfortable with who he is – Juan is the only person who has ever told him that there is nothing wrong with being gay. Chiron instead has to cope with isolation, guilt and shame – emotions that Jenkins’ beautifully structured middle-chapters show, push him more and more towards anger and rage.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Chiron as a young adult has turned himself as much as possible into what his community believes “a man should be”. It’s striking how similar he looks to Juan – from his dress and jewelry, to his muscular manner and his profession. The skinny boy of the first two chapters has become a muscle-bound, intimidating young man. What hasn’t changed is his emotional distance, his isolation. In fact, what has been magnified is his desire to be loved, to feel a connection. A connection that he arguably hasn’t felt for over a decade.

The film can speak to anyone who has had problems fitting in, who feels different from others. Jenkins fits it beautifully into a community he was familiar with, a Black community (there isn’t a single white person anywhere in the film) that values qualities of masculinity and aggression that run counter to Chiron’s own personality, but which he is forced to conform with. This is such a compromised community that the person who understands Chiron most – the drug dealer Juan – is also a big part of the problem, supplying the drugs that are affecting his mother’s life and a leading part of the violent, macho world Chiron lives in.

This mentor relationship is the beating heart of the much of the film – helped by Mahershala Ali’s wonderfully judged (Oscar-winning) performance as Juan. Juan is a man of contrasts, thoughtful and tender, understanding of the internal struggles of a young man (has he dealt with them himself), but also moving in a violent and destructive world, a leading part of the criminal community that dominates Chiron’s world. He offers enough of a lost opportunity for Chiron to have reshaped his life – while also propping up the world that will crush him.

Juan is certainly a big part of destroying Chiron’s mother Paula. Naomi Harris is superbly damaged, raw and uncontrolled as an addict we see disintegrate over the first two chapters until she settles into the fragile older woman plagued with guilt in the final act. This is a mother who offers no love and support to her son, who denigrates him for his differences and builds a world around him that has no love or understanding in it. Her collapse is as much a criticism of the horrors and compromises of this community as it is a terrible warning story.

Jenkins’ film looks phenomenal, with a style that marries poetry and realism. It can feature young boys playing in the park with aggressive naturalness, underscored with Mozart. There is a beautiful running theme of water, cropping up at key moments of Chiron’s life: from the swimming lesson Juan gives him, to the cold water he cleans his face in after a teenage beating, to the adult Chiron largely drinking only water (perhaps to make sure he never slips and reveals too much of himself). It’s a gentle touch – reflected as well in the cool blues that frequently cover the screen, like the wash of water.

The actors portraying Chiron and Kevin are wonderful. The final act revolves around a beautifully played scene between Trevante Rhodes and André Holland as their adult versions, a low-key, but deeply emotional, conversation that sees them carefully skirt round a host of emotions that can never be expressed, partly as neither character as the emotional hinterland to use them.

Jenkin’s film won a deserved Oscar as Best Picture. It deserves it for showing us two worlds we see so little in film: both the working-class Black community, but also the life of a young gay man in modern America. It’s wonderfully judged, low-key, personal and with a slight story carries great emotional force. It gives you far more to think about and consider than you might at first expect, and makes for an eye-opening and deeply involving film.

Hidden Figures (2016)

Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe are trying to make their way in a white man’s world

Director: Theodore Melfi

Cast: Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Glen Powell (John Glenn), Mahershala Ali (Colonel Jim Johnson)

The Space Race has a certain mysticism in American culture, epitomising a time of hope, where humanity literally touched the stars. And yet, amidst all this hope and aspiration, a whole section of America’s own population was being oppressed by racial segregation and prejudice. Hidden Figures brings these two aspects together by telling the stories of some of the black women who struggled against adversity to help send a man to the moon.

Hidden Figures is the sort of film Hollywood does very well: a warm, unfussy crowd-pleaser pushing all the expected emotional buttons, presenting an inspiring “based on true events” story . The film focuses on three black women pioneers at NASA. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius and widowed mother, promoted to work as a figures checker – and struggles to gain acceptance and equality with her fellow workers. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the team leader in all but name (and pay) of a group of black female checkers, who decides to make herself invaluable as a computer expert. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) works as an assistant to the engineering team, but struggles to gain the formal qualifications she needs to progress.

Truth be told, it isn’t anything special – it knows how to serve up its moments in an affecting way, but it’s filmed with a workmanlike flatness. Its structure and events are predictable – the standard arc of adversity, struggle, acceptance and triumph. But it’s still affecting for all that, and well made. It becomes a decent feel-good movie, and manages to never succumb to overt seriousness or heavy handed self-importance: it keeps the tone pretty light.

It’s a film about racial and sexual discrimination, but it avoids introducing an actual villain. The real opponent is “the way things are” – no single white character is particularly racist or unpleasant, just used to the system being what it is and, feeling only the benefits of it, feel no obligation to change it. It’s not just the white characters either – even Ali’s Colonel Johnson struggles to believe Katherine works at NASA as a mathematician, and this everyday sexism is as much a barrier to the women as race.

Melfi astutely picks a handful of key moments to showcase discrimination: from little moments like Goble being handed a bin to empty when she arrives on her first day, to the careful hierarchical games played as Dorothy addresses Kirstin Dunst’s supervisor as “Miss Mitchell”, while always being called “Dorothy” in return. This sits alongside more overt moments: Hidden Figures probably has a claim to fame as being the only film to feature a toilet trip as its dramatic highlight – Gobley having to run over 15 minutes across the campus to use the “Coloured Women’s” bathroom, a situation only resolved by the intervention of her grizzled boss (an effective Kevin Costner). The design also works well to help visually make the woman stand out as different in the sea of white NASA men around them.

Spot the odd one out in NASA

If the characters do fall into a standard pattern (the quiet professional one, the motherly one, the firebrand), the acting is still extremely good. Henson is terrific as the quiet anchor of the film – it’s particularly admirable as the role largely isn’t showy or flashy. But she brings a quiet, assured professionalism, making Goble a woman who knuckles down and gets on with it, whose quiet assurance wins eventual respect. The love story between her and Ali’s Colonel Johnson is also very sweet. Spencer is very good as Vaughan, particularly the way she suggests resentment just below the surface of her motherly exterior. Monáe has the least interesting role, but her bolshiness serves as a nice contrast to the other leads.

The tricky thing when a film purports to be a piece of history, is when you find out much of what you watched didn’t actually happen. The racial segregation we see so prevalent in NASA just wasn’t quite the case in real life. The obstacles and barriers placed before our heroines largely didn’t happen. Even segregated bathrooms (a key motif in the film) were not an issue at NASA. Many of the events we see didn’t happen – or not like this – and the vast majority of the supporting characters are composite inventions. After investing in the struggles of the three characters, it’s easy to feel that the revelation that it was (almost) all made-up has cheapened the impact of the story.

However, what is true is: even if NASA wasn’t as bad as this, most of the rest of America was. So even if this film makes working in NASA look a lot worse in the 1960s than it in fact was, it does feel very true if taken as a general impression of what life in America was like back then for black Americans. So although the film has to brush up and embellish things that actually happened, it does feel very true to the general experience of being both black and a woman in the 1960s. All of which is a way of giving the film a bit of a pass for its inaccuracy. It might be gilding the lily of the struggles these women had in NASA, but it is certainly a real impression of what black women experienced in America at the time – in fact the reality was almost certainly worse.

Hidden Figures is a charming enough film, even though it’s a pretty predictable and unsurprising one. It pushes all the Hollywood buttons you would expect with confidence, and while its story arcs don’t deviate much from the “inspiring movie” template, they do work very well. Its historical accuracy is ropey, but it does feel like it gives a very good sense of the attitudes of the time – capturing both the almost atmosphere of hope in 1960s America, and also the everyday horrors of segregation and racial oppression. It also has some terrific performances. It may be a safe, crowd-pleaser of a film – but it does please the crowds well.