Swampflix readers, the internet has been essentially de-democratized. What I mean by that is that when you or I go online to look for the answer to a question or read one (1) article about a thing that we engaged with or enjoyed, we no longer get to interact with that article in a vacuum. Unless you’re VPN’d up every single time that you look for a movie review or try to purchase a replacement ice mold for the Rival snow cone maker that you purchased at an estate sale without realizing that it required a part that was not present, you’re going to start getting ads for snowball machines and your YouTube homepage is going to be flooded with think pieces and video essays about the film that you just wanted one critic’s viewpoint on. Well, that and advertisements and algorithmically driven content to make you stay on the platform longer, feel encouraged to interact with the content to drive engagement, etc. Like most Swampflix contributors, my interests are not fully in alignment with the zeitgeist, but every once in a while, they are; unfortunately, although that means that I was as excited aboutM3GAN as the culture at large was, discussion of her wasn’t omnipresent in the discourse of the YouTube channels that I haven’t blocked. But boy howdy did YouTube love that I lovedGlass Onion. Amidst a deluge of clickbait bids titled “[Number] Things You Missed in Glass Onion!”, “All the Secret Connections betweenKnives Out and Glass Onion!”, and the like, I have to admit that I did encourage the algorithm just a little by watching videos that talked about the various films and TV shows that had served as inspiration for the film, because I go through periods where mysteries are all that I ever want to consume. Frequently cited as a major creative jumping-off point for the film was 1973’s The Last of Sheila.
Helmed by director Herbert Ross and scripted by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (the only screenplay credit for each), the film tells the story of film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) and his plan to take several of his friends on a pleasure cruise aboard his private yacht. Their voyage begins, presumably not accidentally, on the anniversary of the death of Greene’s girlfriend, Sheila, who left one of his parties in a fit and was killed by a hit-and-run driver mere blocks from his house. An avid player of games of strategy and wit, Greene has planned out a series of mystery nights where his guests will go ashore with a set of clues and split up to try and solve a mystery. Each person aboard is also given a card that is to be their “secret identity” for the game, and the first of these that we see as characters open their envelopes are things like “Alcoholic,” “Shoplifter,” and “Homosexual.” Further, each of his traveling companions was there the night of Sheila’s death: Christine (Dyan Cannon), a film talent agent who’s full of wit and flirtatiousness in that a 1970s showbiz liberated way; glamorous but troubled starlet Alice (Raquel Welch) and her current beau, another film agent named Anthony (Ian McShane), who’s forever angling to get more involved with the production side of film; faded movie star and giant of another age Philip Dexter (James Mason) who’s now stuck in undignified commercials for dog food; and Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin), a screenwriter who’s been stuck doing rewrites on spaghetti westerns while his original work remains unsold and unproduced. The only person on the cruise whom we are explicitly told wasn’t there the night Sheila died isTom’s wife Lee (Joan Hackett), a kind but idle and neurotic heiress. The first night of the mystery game is largely a success, with half of the group getting to the secret while the other half is either too late or doesn’t try at all. On the second night, however, tragedy strikes, and when not everyone comes back to the boat, our cast of characters return to the site of the previous evening’s game and discover that someone from their number has died, under mysterious circumstances.
Excited as I was to finally see this film, at a full two hours, it starts to feel its length in places. The site of the second night’s game is an abandoned monastery where the gang has to don identity-revealing robes and remain quiet until they locate the confessional in which Greene is hiding, which makes for a lot of fun as characters pass each other without we in the audience ever really knowing with whom they’re speaking or even if the characters know; unfortunately, this runabout through the monastery feels much longer than the ten minutes of screen time that it occupies and unfortunately telegraphs that a twist is coming. For the first hour of the movie, the omnipresent implication is that Greene has arranged some elaborate plan to discover which of his guests was Sheila’s killer, but a savvy viewer will know that there’s simply no time left in the runtime of the film to go through five more puzzles, and so there’s going to be a complicating factor at any moment. You’re not surprised by the second death, merely by who is the unfortunate corpse. I’ll be the first to admit that I might have been spoiled (or had a certain part of my brain atrophy while another part grew three sizes) by watching some 250+ episodes of Murder, She Wrote in the past thirteen months, so I could be stuck on that formula, but an hour in feels like an awfully late place to stick your midpoint murder twist. At the same time, there’s no fat to trim here, no extraneous beats that don’t reveal something relevant about character, motive, time, and secrecy, it’s just that the relevancy of all of these narrative moments is often revealed late in the game.
If there are two performers who stand out to me, I’d have to name Cannon and Hackett. Every performance here is good, but Cannon is delivering a wonderfully understated performance as a woman who’s committed to living life as sensually and hedonistically as possible but whose dark past she regrets; she’s stunning. A whodunit like this doesn’t require the sincerity and humanity that she brings to her delivery of a monologue in which she confesses to having furthered her career by slipping some names to the HUAC, but it certainly elevates it. “Then those people didn’t work for a while,” she says. “Now they work. Sometimes I try and get them work. Sometimes I see them on the street and sometimes … they cross the street.” She tries to play off her guilt, but no one is convinced, least of all herself, and it’s magical. Also doing great work here is Hackett, whose frantic, nervous, chain-smoking Lee is clearly having a very hard time with all of this business right from the start as the only person aboard who doesn’t belong there, since she was hundreds of miles away when Sheila died. As the only person we can be assured isn’t a killer, she seems to understand the jeopardy of being on the boat with someone willing to cover up their hand in an accident that resulted in a death. After all, someone almost kills Christine by turning on the yacht’s propellers while she’s taking a swim; who’s to say there won’t be more “accidents”? The big stars are clearly supposed to be Mason and Benjamin, the actor and the writer, who take point on trying to spin out the narrative that would lead to the things that the group has uncovered and discovered—and let there be no mistake, they are both more than satisfactory, with Mason having the upper hand over Benjamin in the charm department—but it’s Cannon and Hackett that I’ll be thinking about weeks from now.
Let’s talk humor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, alongside the performances, the other tempering element that helps the movie feel like it’s got some pep in its step when it gets a little slow is the film’s comedic wit. Before she can even get on the boat, Christine complains about the lack of a drink in her hand by declaring “My mouth is so dry they could shoot Lawrence of Arabia in it,” which I’ve found myself saying every once in a while over the years without ever remembering its origin (it’s the pull quote used for the film in Douglas Brode’s compendium—and my longtime companion—Edge of Your Seat: The 100 Greatest Movie Thrillers, where it ranks at 88th). Even the jokes that characters make that are supposed to be either unfunny or in bad taste within the text got a chuckle out of me, especially those that poke fun at Hollywood and celebrity culture. This includes Greene’s mocking of Tom’s body of work as a second set of eyes on Westerns by asking him to read from a section of Fistful of Lasagna (“or whatever it’s called”). Even if the references are a half century old now, the core truths in play keep the film feeling fresh, despite some major dissonance in other areas that it’s important to address: one of the characters is outed as a child molestor, which is bad enough, but the other characters don’t really seem to think that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed or even has a glimmer of an idea of reporting him to the authorities. If there’s one thing in this film that hasn’t aged well, it’s the casualness with which that horrifying little tidbit is dropped and the lack of reaction to it.
Already, I’ve risked giving away too much of the plot of this one, so I’ll wrap it up. Stellar performances, creative misdirects and clues, and clever jokes stashed away in little corners more than make up for the times where the film feels like it’s dragging the bottom. Although you can rent this one streaming, I’m sure your local library has a DVD that’s probably got some fun extras and easter eggs on it, so why not visit them instead?
I recently talked on the podcast about my dear friend Ana Reyes’s astounding and well-deserved success surrounding her first novel, The House in the Pines (still #2 on the NYT bestseller list for hardback fiction as of this writing!). When we were all having drinks after the launch party back on January 3, her husband, who is also a writer and friend, mentioned to me that he and Ana had recently been talking about how ahead of the “cozy mystery” curve I was when I put together my pitch document/series bible for the as-yet-undiscovered project Mrs. Wintergreen. As I smiled a toothless grin that belied my bitterness that fate has not seen fit to bring Mrs. Wintergreen to life, I didn’t even point out that not only was that the case, but also that I had even included a scene in which my protagonist, 108-year-old semi-pro sleuth Constance Wintergreen, expressed an appreciation forGlass Onion star Janelle Monae:
Agatha Christie is very in vogue, as evidenced by not only the aforementioned Christe-adjacent 2022 release Glass Onion, but also the Christie-containing See How They Run, a confident first feature from director Tom George penned by Mark Chappell, who is perhaps best known for his writing for the David Cross vehicle The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. A period piece, the film begins on the night of the hundredth performance of The Mousetrap, a Christie-authored play which is infamous for two things: first, that there is a twist ending that the audience is encouraged not to reveal to others, resulting in the play’s ending remaining largely unknown to this day, and second, that the contract for the play forbids any adaptation of the source material to film (or the short story on which it was based from being published) until at least six months have passed since its final performance at London’s West End. This was a particularly long-sighted bit of legal play, as the show has run continuously (other than a COVID-caused pause) since its opening night in October of 1952, seventy years ago. In fact, I have some suspicion that this film exists solely for that reason, as it is the closest we can get to a Mousetrap adaptation for the foreseeable future.
Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) is a sleazy slimeball of an American film director (redundant, I know) who has his sights set on turning The Mousetrap into a hit motion picture. That previously noted clause about the show being forced to close before this can even be a possibility is at the forefront of the minds of many involved, but theatre producer Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) assures him that the play has already reached its 100th performance and surely it will run out of steam soon, espousing the idea that a narrative with a whodunit at its core will, by its nature, see few repeat visitors and will necessitate closure sooner than later. Although we the viewers are sufficiently distant from this event that this is an historical irony for us, the contemporary American studio system is so confident that they already have Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) working on a screenplay. Cocker-Norris’s English sensibilities and sense of adaptational faithfulness brings him into conflict with the flashy Köpernick, although the former is not alone in his distaste for the latter: British film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) is also protecting a scandalous secret about which Köpernick is blackmailing him; Köpernick is rude to all members of waitstaff everywhere, which includes the put-upon usher Dennis Corrigan (Charlie Cooper); and, mere moments before his murder at the ten minute mark, he is decked by Richard “John ‘Spared no expense’ Hammond” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who portrays the lead in The Mousetrap, for flirting with his co-star and wife Ann Saville (Pippa Bennett-Warner). The investigation of his death necessitates the appearance of Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), the archetype of the drunken detective who plays fast and loose with the rules; due to a shortage of available partners, he is paired with Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), a plucky, energetic up-and-comer who is mere months away from being the first woman to take the sergeant’s exams.
This is a neat little movie that makes sense in and of itself but also functions as a love letter to Christie and to her longtime fans, a body of which I consider myself to be a member. For instance: a scene in which the excitable Stalker asks a hotelier what part of France he is from based on the fact that he speaks French only to receive a deadpan response that he is Belgian is a fun comic bit in and of itself, but it’s also a nod to fans of Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who often finds himself on the receiving end of this exact misunderstanding. There’s also a good running gag about Hamlet: Early on, Attenborough says of The Mousetrap “It’s not exactly Hamlet.” Later, Stoppard half-quotes Act II Scene II’s famous ending line “The play’s the thing” [“Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”], spoken when Hamlet commits himself to obtaining evidence of his uncle Claudius’s guilt through an elicitation of a confession upon seeing a fictionalization of Hamlet’s father’s murder. This is itself a circular reference, as not only does it reveal that Stoddard has realized that the connection between the murder of Köpernick may actually have to do with the play’s content, not its performance as initially suspected, but the word “mousetrap” likely comes from Hamlet in the first place as Hamlet refers to the play as a mousetrap in Act III Scene II (line 2131), in what may be the invention of the term. Your mileage is likely to vary on certain comic elements, of course; whether or not you find it clever that Cocker-Norris disdains screenplays that include flashbacks as crass and artless moments before one occurs in his narration is going to be left up to the individual viewer. I find his asking of “Whatever next? A caption that says, ‘Three weeks later’?” juxtaposed with that very caption to be charming and fun, but I know that others will find it to be more of a moment of bathos.
My favorite gag, however, cribs neither from Shakespeare or Christie, but Adaptation: in a flashback, much to the chagrin of Cocker-Norris, we get to see a little bit of how Köpernick’s mind works as he shows a series of storyboards that he put together for the climax of the film version of The Mousetrap. The images are quick cuts between detailed insets: gloved hands at a power box, a revolver being cocked by an unknown person, a fire breaking out in the middle of a tense standoff with a hostage—all of it very un-Christie and extremely Hollywood. This is Köpernick’s attempt to “jazz up” the very un-Hollywood and extremely Christie ending of the play, which uses one of her most well-known and genre-defining tropes: the end-of-the-story summation gathering, in which the detective gets everyone together in a parlor to explain their investigation and conclusion. In fact, not that it matters, but it’s so very much part of the genre that a parody of this type of scene is the very first thing that happens in the script for the Mrs. Wintergreen pilot, “Mrs. Wintergreen and the Thorny Dilemma”
See How They Run turns this on its ear by playing both sides in the same way that Adaptation does, by mocking the hand that feeds it via denigrating comments about the formulaic nature of Hollywood adaptations, and then doing each and every one of the things that it mocks. The climax of the film takes place in a parlor that has the exact same layout, dimension, and decorations as the final set of the play, although this is obscured until the last possible moment to reveal it. The revolver, the fire, the standoff, the power box—the whole thing plays out in exactly the same way that Köpernick’s storyboard does. It’s a lot of fun to watch. (So would Mrs. Wintergreen be, I think, but I digress.)
I was engaging with some essay or other this week and was taken aback when the author noted that, for all of his extremely large body of literary work, Isaac Asimov’s oeuvre rarely sees film adaptations, with only a handful ever being produced: Konets Vechnosti from 1987, based on The End of Eternity, which I assume must have had a subtitled release in the U.S. at some point but I can find no evidence of; the Robin Williams vehicle Bicentennial Man; two separate adaptations of the 1941 short story “Nightfall;” and, theoretically at least, I, Robot. In general, the world does not lack for Christie adaptations; they are so numerous that films based on And Then They Were None alone have their own Wikipedia subpage. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was adapted as an episode of Miss Marple and Agatha Christie’s Marple, which are two separate television shows, as well as a film version in 1980 starring Angela Lansbury as Marple. When it comes to Christie media, we are the lilies of the field, neither toiling nor spinning, nevertheless arrayed in splendor. But we don’t have an adaptation of The Mousetrap, and we likely never will. Even if that day comes, there’s a risk it will be as dull and uninteresting as 2017’s Crooked House, which even Glenn Close and Gillian Anderson couldn’t save. What we do have is See How They Run, which is more than good enough; it’s great.
“It hides not behind complexity but behind mind numbing, obvious clarity!” So Daniel Craig’s Glass Onion character Benoit Blanc, called by Google “the world’s greatest detective,” says to much-vaunted “inventor” Miles Bron (Edward Norton) toward the end of this Knives Out sequel. I was a big fan of Knives Out when it premiered a few years ago. Brandon got a screener copy of its sequel along with some fun swag, and he was kind enough to both let me wait until the film fell into my greedy little clutches to publish a review, but also send along some of said swag, which includes the fantastic “A Rian Johnson Whodunnit” hat which you can see me wearing below while also clothed in one of my Angela Lansbury shirts:
For Glass Onion, Benoit Blanc once again finds himself insulated from the world among a smaller world of morons, ingrates, and moronic ingrates as well as hucksters, snake oil salesman, and politicians. This time, he has ostensibly received an invitation to a murder mystery weekend at the home of the aforementioned Bron, who is an amalgamation of various rich douchebag stereotypes (and truths) but who most closely resembles Elon Musk due to his involvement in various companies and businesses which work together to create an impression of a wise ubermensch, when he is in fact a little weirdo who obsesses over getting approval from others. Also invited to the island were several of Bron’s friends, each of whom received a puzzle box that required them to work together to solve and receive their invitation. There’s Birdie (Kate Hudson), the ignorant socialite whose put-upon assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) has the full time responsibility of not letting her tweet something racist and dumb that could get her cancelled for good; there’s also sad MRA Duke (Dave Bautista) who lives in his mother’s basement while hawking various products that promise to make his viewers “alphas” like he presents himself to be, while his social-climber girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) plays along with his internet image. On the smarter end of the scale of Bron’s friends is Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.), one of the lead scientists at Alpha who liaises with upper management about Bron’s ideas; and the gang is rounded out by Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), former governor of Connecticut who is now campaigning for a senatorial run. Finally and apparently unexpectedly, also in attendance is Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), a former business partner of Bron’s who was unsuccessful in preventing him from pushing her out of the business and exposing his questionable business practices. It’s May 2020, and they have gathered at Bron’s Grecian estate, which is topped with an ostentatious lúkovichnaya glava made of transparent glass, from which the film partially takes its name.
Of course, the title could mean a lot of things. For instance, it’s the name of the bar where all of the main characters (sans Blanc) gathered in their pre-wealth days, when Andi first brought them all together and before they all stabbed her in the back. It’s also, famously, the title of a track from what we colloquially call The White Album, although it’s properly titled The Beatles. Following all of the fan speculation about the meanings of some of the more psychedelic and impenetrable lyrics on their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, John Lennon opted to pen a song that was intentionally antagonistic to anyone attempting to find a deeper meaning in the words; even if you don’t know the song title, you’re familiar with the Paul is dead conspiracy theory that’s now 55 years strong because of the lyrics “the Walrus is Paul.” Or, as Blanc says at one point: “I like the glass onion as a metaphor, an object that seems densely layered, but in reality the center is in plain sight.” From title to exposition, everything is a clue here, just as it was in Knives Out in 2019, and although the social criticism is a little shallower and more obvious than it was last time, I’m still here for the very fun ride.
Of course, that’s one of the things that makes films this elegantly constructed difficult to write about. You’re either going to end up recapitulating all of the fun and foreshadowing how it pays off, which ruins the ride for first-time viewers (hell, I’m already worried I might have given away who the killer is just from my little gags in this review so far) or you’re stuck trying to explicate on something in which the pleasure of the viewer lies in running alongside the narrative and having the revelations to the audience coincide with those to the characters. It’s tricky to pull off, and I’ve often cited how I feel comedy and mystery exist in and evoke neurochemical pleasure in the same parts of the mind: it’s all very specific planting and payoff, and if your audience gets to the solution/punchline too far in advance of the flow of the narrative, it can be death for both genres. Melding them together is a perfect idea (I’ve got more than one work in progress right now that does precisely that) that also doubles the potential for the film to crash and burn like, I don’t know, a SpaceX Falcon 1 launch. Both the previous Knives Out film and this one manage to pull it off. Every reveal makes total sense and falls perfectly in line with what we’ve already seen and what we already know while still allowing us to feel some sense of accomplishment in “figuring it out” along with the characters. It’s an effect you can only find in great examples of the genre, like Murder, She Wrote, which gets a loving reference here in the form of several celebrity cameos playing Among Us with Blanc during his quarantine blues before his invitation to the Onion, most notably and most wonderfully the divine, magical Dame Lansbury.
If I have any complaints about the film, they are few and far between. Blanc is bigger and bolder here than he was in the last film, which matches the zanier plot of this one but also makes it feel like the character isn’t quite consistent. This one doesn’t straddle the line of mocking conservatism and neoliberalism from a slightly left position as well as the last one did, which makes this one feel more “Hollywood” than the last one as well, despite both featuring a cast full of legitimate movie stars. It has a little bit of the Trump SNL taint on it (alternatively we could call it the There’s Someone Inside Your House problem), where just because something happens to align with my belief system doesn’t mean that it automatically makes it a better or more worthwhile piece of art. Most of its barbs are sharp, though. In particular, I love the detail that Birdie, who has already been shown to have zero concern about hosting a superspreader event in her apartment, arrives to the dock on the way to Bron’s island in what the script describes as a “fashionable but totally useless lace mask”. Some of them land a little more loudly or call more attention to themselves than they should, when I don’t remember the first film having any issues with this at all, but maybe that’s the nature of political satire now. There are elements of the plot, setting, and choices here that seem eerily prescient given how long the film took to make, like that it was in theaters at the time that Elon Musk had his bluff legally called and was forced to complete his purchase of Twitter, or that there is a giant mural in Bron’s house depicting Kanye West as Jesus Christ, which is both funny and depressing given the nature of West’s current public persona entirely revolving around spouting Anti-Semitic rhetoric with his whole chest. It recalls how there was an entire garden industry on the internet for a while of pointing out things that The Simpsons “predicted,” when the simpler and more depressing reality is that, with a few notable exceptions, there hasn’t been much of an improvement in most people’s lives since 1989. Glass Onion didn’t predict anything either, but it certainly has a talent to reflect how bleak things are at the moment.
At the end of the day, this is the kind of movie that I can only recommend you watch it or not, given that saying more than I’ve already said runs the risk of spoiling too much. If you’ve already got Netflix, you really have no reason not to, and I think that you’ll really enjoy the twists and turns along the way if you have the patience. And you’re at home, where you can pause and create your own intermission to go to the bathroom or make a cocktail, so why not? If nothing else, every person who watches this movie pushes Ben Shapiro closer and closer to having an epiphanic moment about what his actual place in the world is, and isn’t that a dream we should all strive towards?
Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing ensemble cast whodunnit Knives Out is proving to have a surprisingly substantial box office presence. The murder mystery Old Dark House throwback with a large cast of celebrity players is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but it’s not one that always translates to commercial success. Consider, for instance, the 1985 John Landis-penned whodunit spoof Clue, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the eponymous board game. While Clue has gradually earned cult classic status over decades of television broadcasts, it first arrived in American theaters as a financial flop. That’s difficult to fathom in retrospect, as its TV broadcast familiarity throughout my life has always framed it in my mind as a beloved, popular classic. It turns out its financial & cultural impact aren’t the only aspects of Clue that had been altered through the faulty lens of my own memory either. Through time, I’ve lost track of exactly how funny this film is and who in the cast is responsible for its biggest laughs.
Given the presence of comedic heavyweights like Landis, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Tim Curry, it’s easy to misremember Clue as a nonstop laugh riot. The collective charms of its cast does make the film eternally pleasant to revisit, but its laugh-to-joke ratio is disappointingly low. In recent years, I’ve come to think of Clue as a less-funny Murder By Death (which admittedly does have its own problems, mostly due to Peter Sellers’s yellowface performance as a Charlie Chan archetype), just with an updated-for-the-80s cast. Clue‘s sense of humor is a paradoxically low-energy offshoot of ZAZ spoofery, in which the genre-homage slapstick is plentiful but arrives at an unrushed pace. The biggest knee-slapper laugh lines come from mainstay Mel Brooks collaborator Madeline Kahn, whose “flames on the side of my face” & “It’s a matter of life after death; now that he’s dead I have a life” zingers have transformed the murderous widow character into a hall-of-fame meme. However, her presence is too sparsely doled out to carry the film on its own. To match the ZAZ-level energy needed to keep this genre spoof lively, Clue needed a much louder, more frantic MVP.
As the deceptive butler of the Old Dark House who gathers a group of high-profile strangers as dinner party guests to reveal that they’re all being blackmailed by the same soon-to-die rapscallion (the amusingly named Mr. Body), Curry has the fairly thankless role of constantly explaining the situation at hand. While the rest of the cast can rest on the charm of their personalities & Old Hollywood noir costuming, Curry is constantly doing the labor of providing direction & purpose for the proceedings. The true comic genius of Clue is in watching how that role escalates into total delirium as the bodies pile up and the party descends into chaos. By the final half hour of the film, Curry is soaked in flop sweat as he frantically runs around the house, dragging the rest of the cast behind him and explaining at length What’s Really Going On Here. In bewildering rapid-fire line deliveries & breathless monologue, Curry re-explains the entire plot of the film from the very first scene to the revelation of who among the suspects killed Mr. Body. It’s an absurd spectacle of physical comedic acting, one that only becomes funnier the longer it stretches on — driving Curry into a blissful mania that hasn’t been given nearly as much credit for its accomplishments as Kahn’s laidback zingers.
I don’t mean to downplay the pure pleasure of Madeline Kahn’s magnificent presence in Clue. I just find it bizarre that her cultural impact has been outshining what Tim Curry acheives in the film, when he does so much more heavy-lifting in keeping the film memorably funny. For instance, Kahn’s .gif-famous “flames on the side of my face” zinger is only included in one of the film’s three alternate endings, which you might not even see if you allow your DVD player to choose an ending at random. Meanwhile, Curry’s deranged flop sweat explanation of What’s Really Going On here is a substantial anchor in all three alternate endings, so that he’s literally doing triple the work of the rest of the cast. As so much of Clue’s legacy is built on nostalgia—both in its 1950s Agatha Christie throwback aesthetic and its 1990s television broadcast repetition—the frantic spectacle of this performance is just yet another element at play that deserves re-evaluation in a nostalgia check. The movie may not be as energetically silly, commercially successful, or Madeline Kahn-heavy as it’s misremembered to be, but Tim Curry sure does his damnedest to make up for any & all of its shortcomings all on his own, practically turning an ensemble-cast comedy into a one-man show.
“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue,” Daniel Craig’s Knives Out character Benoit Blanc, “last of the gentleman sleuths,” says to Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) upon being told that all the physical evidence surrounding the death of publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) points to suicide. This is not the first or last of a series of surprisingly well delivered bon mots from Blanc as he doggedly pursues the truth of what happened the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday.
All the family gathered that night: Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who describes her real estate business as “self-made,” in spite of actually starting out with a million dollar loan from the family patriarch; widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a self-described lifestyle guru/entrepreneur and would-be influencer whose knowledge of current events comes from reading tweets about New Yorker articles; and, finally, son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Blood Like Wine Publishing, his father’s business. Each has their own family and hangers-on, as well; Linda is married to the largely useless and unfaithful Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is likewise a rootless gadabout and playboy of the Tom Buchanan mold; the delightful Riki Lindhome is given little to do other than spout Trump-era rhetoric about “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” in her role as Walt’s wife Donna, and their son Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher) is a smartphone-addicted teen described as a “literal Nazi” who allegedly masturbates to images of dead deer; Joni is accompanied by daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is attending a prestigious liberal arts college and serves as the closest thing to a good person this family has, although she is not without her flaws. There’s also Greatnana, Thrombey’s elderly mother of unknown age, played by onetime Martha Kent K Callan, who I was surprised to learn was still alive. Also in the house that night are Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and pothead housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, taking a break from killing it on The Righteous Gemstones). When Ransom storms out early after a heated discussion, suspicion initially falls on him, but every member of the family has a motive, as Thrombey had announced to each of them that very night that he was cutting off their individual paths of access to his wealth. And then, 33 minutes into the film’s 130 minute runtime, writer-director Rian Johnson tells you who did it. And then things get interesting.
I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. Despite the big names in that cast list above, Marta is our real hero here, although to say more than that would be to give away too much of the plot–both the film’s and Harlan’s. I’m not generally a fan of Daniel Craig, but in this opportunity to play against type, his turn as a kind of Southern Hercule Poirot here is surprisingly charming, first appearing to be somewhat bumbling and ignorant in his pursuit of the truth but ultimately proving to have a sharp deductive mind. His affected drawl also helps take many of Blanc’s lines, some of the best one-liners ever committed to a movie script, and elevates them into true comedic art. From the quote at the top of the review to his description of a will reading (“You think it’ll be like a game show. No. Imagine a community theater performance of a tax return.”) to his reference to Jacob in his Sherlockian summation of the evidence near the film’s end (“What were the overheard words by the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom?”), all are rendered hilarious in their Southern gentility. It’s a sight to behold.
The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a “Communism was a red herring” way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be “self-made” despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a “small loan” of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made. Likewise, Rian Johnson has claimed that Jacob’s character is based on blowback he received from some of the darker corners of the internet following (what some would consider to be) the mismanagement of the Star Wars franchise while helming The Last Jedi. In particular, the entirety of the wealthy white family seems completely ignorant of Marta’s country of origin, with each of them calling her a different nationality; after a few glasses of champagne, they devolve into an ugly debate about the current supposed immigration “crisis,” citing well-worn neocon talking points about “America [being] for Americans” and “millions of Mexicans” undermining American culture, as well as the purported illegality of seeking asylum. All of this is done in front of Marta, who is specifically called out as an model member of a minority group and then asked to speak to this experience, exotifying her and speaking over her (that the most useless member of this crew, Richard, does so while absentmindedly handing her his dessert plate—like one would with a server or a domestic servant—is a particularly nice detail). It comes across as rather toothless in the moment, especially given that Jacob is largely held unaccountable for his political ideology (other than Richard’s accusation that the boy spent Harlan’s party in the bathroom “Joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer”), but the white New England family’s desperation to hold onto property that they consider rightfully theirs despite having had no hand in building the family’s financial success is ultimately revealed to be a core part of the film’s thesis, as evinced in the film’s final frame. That having been said, there are moments when I wish that the family was a little less charming and a little more clearly depicted as being in the wrong; at one point at the screening I attended, there was a rather loud laugh when Jacob called Marta an “anchor baby,” and the effusive reaction to that line in particular chilled my blood a bit.
The first time I saw the trailer for this film was beforeThe Farewell, and the friend with whom I saw that flick had no interest in Knives Out, asking only that I text him after I left the theater and tell him who the killer was. I initially assented, but after my screening, I texted him and told him that the movie was too clever to be spoiled that way, and I meant it. This is a movie that should be seen without as little foreknowledge as possible, and as soon as you can.
Like many horror nerds out there, I’m a huge fan of Bela Lugosi. That’s an exhausting thing to be sometimes, as so much of Lugosi’s career was relegated to hitting the same notes over & over again. Whether working for a major studio or slumming it on poverty row, Lugosi’s icon status as the definitive Dracula typecast him only as villainous monsters for the majority of his career. No matter how much you love his screen presence, it can be tiring to see Lugosi appear over & over again as vampires, mad scientists, and mad-scientist vampires in the only roles he could land post-Dracula. The problem only got worse as time went on and traditional Famous Monsters work dried up like a temporary fad. Lugosi suffered long periods of working only in dirt-cheap indie productions far below his punching weight and, worse yet, periods of not working at all. That’s what makes 1933’s The Death Kiss such a welcome deviation from the usual public-domain Lugosi cheapies I’ll pick up on a whim whenever I run across them. Reuniting the three main leads of Universal’s Draculaa year after that film’s massive success, The Death Kiss invites the expectation of being yet another Lugosi vampire pic (which can be fun for its own sake), but instead delivers something entirely different. Lugosi somehow doesn’t play a vampire or a mad scientist or a mutant ape man or an eccentric millionaire sadist or anything. No, he plays something much scarier: a movie studio executive.
Instead of relying on Lugosi’s notoriously ghoulish presence for its thrills, The Death Kiss instead reaches for a more novel conceit. Set during the production of a fictional film also titled The Death Kiss, it’s a playfully meta murder mystery that veers away from Lugosi’s usual realm of horror to pursue something resembling a police procedural. As a result, Lugosi himself isn’t often onscreen, as he’s cast as a potential suspect in the case – a studio executive – instead of one of the investigators. The murder in question takes place during a film shoot where an actor is struck down by a gun that was supposed to fire blanks for effect but fired a real bullet instead. The actor died seemingly well-beloved, but homicide detectives soon find plenty of costars & studio employees who quietly hated his guts behind the scenes (including saboteurs who continually undermine & muddle their evidence as they investigate). From there, The Death Kiss delivers exactly what you’d expect from a murder mystery thriller of its era: stark noir lighting, superfluous romance, wisecracking one-liners delivered at a machine gun pace, etc. The novelty of the studio lot setting is its most exciting attribute, especially in scenes where clues are derived from stage makeup or police gather in a screening room to look for evidence in the dailies or the killer is framed in the reflective surface of a stage light. There’s also novelty to seeing Lugosi fade into the background a little bit as just another human subject, as opposed to a bloodthirsty ghoul who’s obviously guilty of murder from frame one.
Despite the overlaps in casting, I’m not sure that superfans of Lugosi or Dracula would be the immediate audience I would think to recommend The Death Kiss to. The film is much more satisfying as a meta movie-industry murder mystery than a rearrangement of that horror classic’s essential pieces. There’s lot of the care & craft that went into its staging that you don’t always get with these early minor-studio Lugosi thrillers, as evidenced by the cleverness of its premise and the few major scenes of action featuring hand-tinted film cells from master colorist Gustav Brock. Seeing Lugosi act out of archetype in a well-crafted non-horror is only lagniappe to the film’s other accomplishments, and something you can only truly appreciate if you’ve already suffered through titles like The Ape Man, Zombies on Broadway, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
If there’s anything in particular that the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child excels at, it’s in offering Oscar Winner & all-around Hollywood legged Faye Dunaway a free-range actor’s showcase. Resembling neither the restrained thrill-seeking-beauty of Bonnie & Clyde nor the detached-from-good-taste camp of Mommie Dearest, Dunaway’s lead role in Puzzle of a Downfall Child reaches for a more disorienting, heart-breaking knockout of performance. Much like Gena Rowland’s similar onscreen breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence, Dunaway’s mental unraveling in our Movie of the Month is purely a one-woman-show, fully immersing the audience in the heightened emotions & distorted perceptions of her character’s troubled psyche. One of the major factors in her mental decline are the Patriarchal pressures & abuses that arise naturally in the industry of high fashion, where she works as a model. Inspired by recorded oral history interviews with the mentally unwell fashion model Anne St. Marie (after she was used up & discarded by the fashion industry in real life), Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a scathing view of couture’s effect on the women who model its wares – especially once they need personal help or simply age out of their perceived usefulness. Dunaway’s heartbreaking performance at the center of the film would be a damning portrait of what the Patriarchy does to women’s psyches in any context, but the fashion industry setting in particular has a way of amplifying that effect to thunderous proportions.
When Dunaway returned to portraying a fashion industry artist later in the decade, her role was seemingly poised to exude more professional power & control over their own well-being. That sense of agency & solid mental health does not last long. In 1978’s The Eyes of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway jumps the chain of command in the world of haute couture from fashion model to fashion photographer. There’s much more creative control & professional clout to be enjoyed on that side of the camera, especially in the fictional Laura Mars’s case, since she happens to be a very famous celebrity photographer at the start of promoting her first book of collected stills. In that position of power, it’s arguable that Dunaway’s protagonist even perpetuates some of the social ills that torment her character in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Laura Mars is famous in her fictional art world for portraying misogynistic violence & extreme sexual kink in her photographs. Worse yet, a deranged serial killer has started to recreate the sordid displays in her work when killing her own fashion models, putting people like Dunaway’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child character in direct physical danger. Whereas the abuse & mania at the center of that earlier work was anchored to the recollections of a real-life artist & public figure, however, the crisis in The Eyes of Laura Mars is more of a supernatural fantasy. Dunaway’s tormented fashion photographer sees through the eyes of the killer during their slayings in uncontrollable psychic visions, directly linking the eyes of her camera to visions of real-life violence. This unreal occurrence shakes her belief that her photographs are enacting the social good of showing the world as it truly is for women by having her work directly inspire violence against women while she helplessly observes from the killer’s POV.
When initially discussing Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that ”Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” The Eyes of Laura Mars follows through on that train of thought, almost explicitly functioning as an American studio attempt at producing a Hollywood giallo picture. Boomer has even written about the film for this site before in reference to former Movie of the Month The Psychic, a Fulci-directed giallo thriller it shares so much DNA with they’re often accused of ripping each other off (depending on which one the audience happens to catch first). Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. What’s interesting here is the way these stylistic & hyperviolent giallo indulgences even the playing field between Dunaway’s two fashion-world archetypes. In The Eyes of Laura Mars she starts from a position of creative power far above her less protected status in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, but the violent & carelessly sexualized way women are framed (if not outright abused) in the industry eventually makes her just as vulnerable. Her own mental breakdown is more of the calm-surface panic of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom than it is akin to Dunaway’s genuine soul-crushing illness in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (or her screeching madness in Mommie Dearest), but the misogynist ills of the couture industry had a way of breaking her protagonist down into a powerless distress in either case.
Almost inconceivably, The Eyes of Laura Mars was originally pitched as a starring vehicle for Barbara Streisand, who reportedly turned it down for the concept being “too kinky.” Having seen Babs pose in leather fetish gear for a Euro biker mag in her younger days, I’m a little baffled by that claim, but it’s probably for the best that she turned it down all the same. We still have evidence of Streisand’s involvement through the torch ballad “Prisoner” on the Laura Mars soundtrack, while also enjoying the fascinating double bill of these two Faye-Dunaway-loses-her-mind-in-giallo-adjacent-fashion-industry-narratives. Of the two pictures that cast her as a victim of fashion-industry misogyny’s strain on women’s mental health, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is both the better film and the better performance. Both titles are worthy of Dunaway’s time and energy, though, and together they conjure an imaginary crossover sequel where she plays both mad model & unhinged photographer – taking pictures of herself in an eternal loop of giallo-flavored mania.
There has only been a handful of actors who’ve played Batman on the big screen over the decades (unless you want to be a stickler and include the 1940s serials), a role that seems like it’s been passed around more from actor to actor than it has. Within that elite club of cinematic Caped Crusaders, there’s a lot of wiggle room in how to interpret the character. Ben Affleck & Christian Bale play him as a gloomy Gus; Adam West & George Clooney lean into his Saturday morning cartoon camp potential; Michael Keaton turned the Bat into a Horned-up weirdo; Val Kilmer played him comatose. It’s a range of variation that’s befitting of Batman’s journey in the comic books, which has taken many different tonal directions over a near-century of different writers & illustrators tasked to continue his legacy as The World’s Greatest Detective. Oddly, that freedom of interpretation is largely missing from the animated versions of Batman, despite their proximity in medium to his comic book form. Kevin Conroy, who voiced the titular vigilante through 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, has become the defining standard of what Batman sounds like as an animated cartoon character. He’s a universally beloved fan-favorite, a status any one of the more divisive live-action performers have yet to achieve. As a result, almost all subsequent interpretations of animated Batmen, no matter who’s writing the text, have felt like faithful imitations of Conroy’s voice work for the character, leaving little room for creative variation. Bruce Greenwood, who voiced Batman in our current Movie of the Month, is just one of these many dutiful imitators, even if a competent one.
Less than halfway into 2018, there have already been three entirely new animated Batman films released, each with a wildly different tone and a different actor voicing the Caped Crusader. As there are now dozens of animated DC movies exploring the usual dynamics of the comic book brand’s more well-known characters, this year’s offerings each rely heavily on a high-concept gimmick to keep their interpretations of Batman relatively fresh. One film explores the possibilities of Batman’s ninja training by translating the character through the anime medium. Another teams up the fearless goth detective with Scooby-Doo in the classic Hanna-Berbera crossover tradition. The gimmick in Bruce Greenwood’s latest Batman project isn’t nearly as interesting as either of those movies sound; it sticks much closer to the Kevin Conroy template than the deviations in either premise. Greenwood reprises his role as Batman for the first time since he played the character in 2010’s Under the Red Hood, our current Movie of the Month, in an animated feature titled Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Like Batman Ninja and Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Gotham by Gaslight attempts to keep Batman fresh by viewing him though a gimmicky contextual lens, this time a Gothic murder mystery. The problem is that the gimmick isn’t exactly a deviation at all, but rather a reinforcement of what was already in the forefront in the Kevin Conroy era. Much of the appeal of Batman: The Animated Series was its Gothic literature overtones, which created nice tension with the show’s modern urban crime thriller narratives (borrowing a page from Tim Burton’s book). DC’s animated movies have been chasing that creative high ever since, but Gotham by Gaslight takes the faithful diligence even further than most projects by transporting its narrative to an actual Gothic literature setting, robbing it of all its aesthetic tension.
19th Century Batman is the same philanthropist sleuth as he is in any other timeline, this time dedicated to solving the case of Jack the Ripper. Familiar faces like Harvey Dent, “Constable” Gordon, Selina Kyle, and Poison Ivy (an erotic dancer stage name in this context) populate a From Hell -style story about a mysterious serial killer who targets female sex workers in dank London alleyways. In a way, Batman’s crimefighting presence makes more sense in this world than it does in a modern one. It’s almost expected that a local wealthy eccentric would have the bizarre nighttime hobby of dressing up like a humanoid bat to beat up the local peasants for petty crimes. Many people even suspect him of being Jack the Ripper, recalling the same parallels between masked criminal & masked vigilante that drove Under the Red Hood. Even Batman’s cape & utility belt make more sense in this context, though he is outfitted with a more traditional trench coat collar for flair. The problem is that Batman makes too much sense in this context, especially after the Gothic literature foundation laid about by The Animated Series. Outside a few strong details like a zeppelin-set knife fight and a steampunk motorcycle, Gotham by Gaslight does little to exploit the possibilities of its gimmick and instead plays its material straight. The film occasionally pretends it has larger gender equality issues on its mind (mostly through the crossdressing, sex work-championing exploits of Selina Kyle), but it’s mostly a straightforward murder mystery styled after the literary trappings that define its setting. Batman: The Animated Series made that aesthetic interesting by clashing it against a modern(ish) urban setting. Gotham by Gaslight isn’t sure what to do without their central juxtaposition. Once the enticing gimmick of its Batman vs Jack the Ripper premise settles into a comfortable narrative groove, the film leaves very little room for novelty or surprise.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is billed as the 30th film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand, which I don’t think even covers films like the recent animated Adam West campy reboots. That’s a whole lotta Batman content, with only two titles under Bruce Greenwood’s belt as the vigilante weirdo. Much like how Gotham by Gaslight does not do much to separate itself from the previous achievements of The Animated Series, Greenwood mostly serves as an echo of the excellent work Kevin Conroy has achieved in the vocal booth. Being that kind of placeholder in the brand can fulfill a lofty purpose, though, particularly when it anchors a well-written story. The dozens of animated DC movies have filtered through writing teams as frequently as any comic book writing stable would, so a consistency in different actors’ vocal performances as the same character is beneficial to maintaining a calm surface that covers up the movement underneath. Bruce Greenwood has voiced Batman in two animated movies, one great (Under the Red Hood) and one dull (Gotham by Gaslight). The quality disparity between these two pictures is entirely on the writers’ shoulders, as Greenwood’s performance changed very little, if at all, between them. Under the Red Hood is a self-contained narrative that brings a comic book storyline to the screen that Batman fans rarely to get to see in motion. Gotham by Gaslight, by contrast, turned the subtext of an animated show with nearly a hundred episodes into up-front text, making its aesthetic less interesting in the process. Bruce Greenwood was present for both, but had very little effect on their outcomes even as the voice of their shared central character. Live-action Batmen have found plenty of room to leave their marks on their respective franchises over the years, but the animated ones mostly come across as a copy of a copy of a copy of a . . . Bruce Greenwood is just one of many.
The opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950s thriller Stage Fright begin with a theatrical “safety curtain” lifting to reveal the city of London instead of a stage. This is not only a winking foreshadowing of that safety curtain’s central role in the film’s conclusion, but also immediately opens the film to a Shakespearean “All the world’s a stage” mindset, deliberately so. Stage Fright gleefully traffics in the meta commentary inherent to all movies & plays about stage actors, setting its murder mystery thriller plot in the posh world London theatre. Instead of bringing real world conflict to the artificial environments of a playhouse, however, Hitchcock brings character study stage acting to real life city streets, teasing out information on a first act murder through a series of false identities & well-formed lies. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that most of the action is confined to an actual theatre and by then that interior space just feels like an extension of the larger city that houses it. It’s a brilliant inversion of what was already well-established trope over half a century ago.
Jane Wyman (of All That Heaven Allows fame) stars as a young character actor in training who’s stuck on a puppy love crush with a boy who’s in big trouble over his actual lover, a famous actress of high society prestige played by Marlene Dietrich. Through an early flashback, we see the young fugitive fleeing a murder charge for the death of Dietrich’s wealthy husband, clutching a bloody dress that would link his lover to the crime. Wyman’s aspiring young actor stashes the fugitive away at her low level smuggler’s home and decides to clear his name herself while the police hunt him down. Her smartass father (a scene-stealing Alastair Sim, who resembles a hybrid between Alec Guinness & John Lithgow) worries that using her stage acting skills to create false identities as a means to gather information is “transmuting melodrama into real life.” He jokes that she’s gathered up a plot, an “interesting” cast, and even a costume (the bloody dress), but is forgetting the real world dangers her “performance” is flirting with. He’s, of course, exactly correct. The actor’s web of lies only lead her further into danger, lust, and mystery as her real world stage play spirals out of her control and one of the great Hitchcock twists entirely disrupts the narrative she had been constructing to absolve her beloved.
Besides the film’s genuinely surprising twist, there are plenty of Hitchcock charms that help distinguish Stage Fright as a notable title among the director’s lesser works. The meta settings of an acting class and a cramped props closet leave plenty of room for Hitchcock’s usual sly, winking-at-the-audience humor. An umbrella-obscured sequence set at a rained-out garden party allows for the director’s mechanically precise craft of set piece staging to come to the forefront. He finds room to play with his usual visual trickery elsewhere as well: a character’s POV fuzzing with prescription glasses, imagined bloodstains on various dresses, a faked split diopter shot (that honestly resembles bad Photoshop in a modern context), etc. These are all minor Hitchcock pleasures, however. For all of Stage Fright‘s small scale successes in meta theatricality & Jane Wyman sleuthing, its biggest draw is the gleeful way Hitchcock shoots & highlights Marlene Dietrich. She doesn’t get nearly as much screentime as Wyman, as she must remain a mysterious figure for the film’s “All the world’s a stage” plot to work, but she still commands the film’s spotlight. Shots of Dietrich smoking under a veil or singing a lengthy Cole Porter number about how she’s too lazy to fuck are what elevates Stage Fright above meta-theatrical murder mystery to something slightly more distinct. Hitchcock did an excellent job of exploring her presence without overplaying her schtick and I’d much more readily recommend the film for someone looking for Top Shelf Dietrich instead of the director’s best. In the end, Dietrich is the star attraction her pompous character believes herself to be and the movie’s meta stage play theatrics are more or less lagniappe.