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Monday, September 26, 2022

Here’s what we learned (without spoilers) at the premiere of ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’

In the same theater, in the same Saturday time slot, where “Knives Out” premiered in 2019, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival unveiled “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,’ the latest film from writer-director Rian Johnson.

Before the film began, Johnson — who earned an Oscar nomination for original screenplay for “Knives Out,” which came into TIFF with positive buzz but exploded into a sleeper hit when it was released two months later — exhorted the enthusiastic crowd with, “Are you guys ready to have a good time? Are you ready for a fun whodunit?”

The sequel is crammed with mysteries within mysteries — even who dies might be a bigger surprise than who the killer is and we wouldn’t dare spoil any it. What can be said is that the film is set very specifically in the early days of the pandemic in 2020 as eccentric tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) invites a group of old friends to his private island for a weekend-long murder mystery party. Almost immediately things do not go as planned. Also attending are characters played by Dave Bautista, Madelyn Cline, Daniel Craig, Kathryn Hahn, Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr.

After the screening, Johnson came back out along with his longtime producer Ram Bergman and cast members Craig, Monáe, Hudson, Hahn, Norton, Odom, Henwick and Cline.

Who’s back?

While Ana De Armas does not return — though there is a performance that may stand out for “Glass Onion” audiences just as De Armas did in “Knives Out” — Craig is very much back as Benoit Blanc, celebrated as the world’s greatest detective. Blanc’s thick, delightfully hammy Southern accent thankfully returns as well, as does his particular way with words. As he says at one point in the film, it is all quite “compelling.”

The film is stuffed with small cameos that shouldn’t be given away, but it can be noted that Johnson’s regular players Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Noah Segan are both back. (But you have to listen for Gordon-Levitt.)

And one more we’ll reveal because of what Johnson shared after the screening: legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, who is on a Zoom with Blanc early in the film (along with three other celebrities we’ll leave it to you to discover). It’s no coincidence that the only produced screenplay Sondheim ever wrote was for the 1973 film “The Last of Sheila,” co-written with Anthony Perkins, of which Johnson is an avowed fan. “Sheila” is about an eccentric who invites his friends to a murder mystery party that goes off the rails. (Sound familiar?)

Sondheim, who died in November, was also referenced in “Knives Out.” Asked about the famed composer’s cameo, Johnson said, “He was incredibly game for it and was so lovely. For me, I’m so happy he’s here in the movie. I’m even more happy that I got 10 minutes on a Zoom with him just to tell him how much his work meant to me.”

(L-R) Kate Hudson as Birdie, Leslie Odom Jr. as Lionel, Kathryn Hahn as Claire, Edward Norton as Myles, Jessica Henwick as Peg, Madelyn Cline as Whiskey, and Dave Bautista as Duke in ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”

(John Wilson / Netflix)

Is there a new cable-knit sweater?

Fans of “Knives Out” went wild for a cable-knit sweater worn by Chris Evans, and there will certainly be people scouring the new film for new looks. With costume design again being handled by Jenny Eagan, who worked on “Knives Out,” there are many standout outfits in the film, including Dave Bautista’s combination swimsuit/gun holster and a shimmering multicolored dress worn by Kate Hudson that is part of a key moment.

But the real winner is likely Craig’s summer vacation outfits, done in pale pastels and with jaunty neck kerchiefs that may actually be an emulatable style. His two-piece swimming pool outfit with bold blue and white stripes may be a tougher look for anyone else to pull off.

What does that title mean?

At one point Blanc says, “I like the glass onion as a metaphor.” While the title “Glass Onion” indeed refers to the 1968 song of the same name by the Beatles — there is another Beatles song referred to in the movie and made into a wicked punch line — it is also a location in the movie. Two locations to be exact: A bar where the group of old friends used to hang out has the name, as does the office/central creative hive that Bron builds at his Mediterranean estate.

Johnson revealed that the exteriors to the film were shot at the Villa 20 resort in Greece while stage work was done in Belgrade, Serbia. “Glass Onion” reunites Johnson with production designer Rick Heinrichs, who also worked on Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

In a recent interview, Johnson described the title by saying, “I’m always fishing for something fun that Blanc can grab onto as an overwrought metaphor that he can beat to death. This is all in plain sight from the very start. So, the idea of glass came to me, something that’s clear. I’ll be very honest. I literally got out my iPhone and searched my music library with the word glass. ‘There’s got to be some good glass songs.’ I was like, ‘Oh, is it a glass fortress? Is it a glass castle? Is it a glass man?’ The first thing that came up, because I’m a huge Beatles fan, is ‘Glass Onion.’ ”

Janelle Monae as Andi in 'Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery."

Janelle Monae as Andi in ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”

(John Wilson / Netflix)

What’s different?

While there are plenty of similarities between the two films — most notably their lampooning of the wealthy — “Glass Onion” very much has its own unique feel.

Asked to describe the difference between “Knives Out” and the new film, Johnson said, “There wasn’t like one big thing. I mean obviously the setting and the fact that you go from cozy New England to Greece was a big obvious one. To me the bigger thing was just that it had a very different narrative gambit to it and that it was trying something different and unique and that tonally, I was gonna kind of go where the characters led me — which, given the characters in the movie, ended up to a slightly bigger place.”

“Well, maybe the actors,” interrupted Norton, to a giggle from Johnson.

“So no, it wasn’t one specific thing,” continued Johnson, “It was less like lashing myself to the mast of ‘this has to be different.’ I don’t think I would be creatively excited about just redoing the first. So it was giving myself the freedom to make it different, to make it creatively exciting to do.”

What’s next?

While Monáe referenced the murder mystery parties the cast would often have together during production and emphasized the camaraderie that emerged among them all, Craig noted, “We had a great time, but we didn’t make it for ourselves. We made it for you.”

Johnson picked up that thread when he answered a question by saying, “I think nobody is smarter than the audience and I think it’s a fools’ game to try and out outsmart an audience. I think the thing is to take people on the ride and take them on a roller coaster ride as opposed to seeing it as a chess game.

“And that’s what we try and do with these movies. They’re whodunits, but at the end of the day, they’re movies and movies are there for us not to sit there and puzzle over what the solution is, movies are there to see with a big crowd and have a blast.”

The new film is being released by Netflix, who in a blockbuster deal paid for two movies. (The film is scheduled to go on the platform on Dec. 23, with a theatrical release date still to be announced.) So to a question from the audience as to whether there will be another movie, producer Bergman answered with an emphatic “Yes.”

Earlier, Craig had said of Johnson, “I’d work with this man for the rest of my life.”

Johnson said, “I’m gonna keep making these until Daniel blocks me on his phone.”

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