‘The 355’ Features Lady Spies Fighting Off a Cyber-MacGuffin

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The 355 (CREDIT: Robert Viglasky/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramirez

Director: Simon Kinberg

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Very Loud Guns and Some Torture

Release Date: January 7, 2022 (Theaters)

Like pretty much every other spycraft movie ever, The 355 left me reeling with bewilderment over my lack of understanding about what exactly was going on. About 20 minutes in, I wondered, “Did I miss something while looking down at my phone or taking a swig of water?” That’s pretty par for the course. What’s less par is the fact that this particular spy movie stars a quintet of ladies who have all garnered plenty of awards recognition over the course of their careers. The title, after all, is a reference to a code name used by a female agent during the American Revolution. But ultimately that feminine energy makes hardly any difference whatsoever.

The 355 (CREDIT: Universal Pictures)

Basically there’s some to-do about some MacGuffin that could apparently destroy the world if it winds up in the wrong hands. So a team of allies and former rivals from all around the world forms on the fly to ensure that this doesn’t happen. There’s also some business about Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent character being betrayed by her partner (Sebastian Stan). I couldn’t figure out what his motivation was. Ultimately I began to entertain the idea that perhaps these actors were just as oblivious as I was about the details of their characters’ mission. They never betrayed any doubt in their performances, but it’s kind of interesting to consider the amount of blindness that could potentially go into pulling off a plot this knotty. Also, Penélope Cruz’s character is a therapist, and it’s clear that she is not used to field work that’s this high-stakes. So I kind of wish the focus had been more on her.

There might be some readers of this review who are shouting at me, “What are you talking about?! This made perfect sense! I know exactly what happened!” But a comprehensible plot is only half the battle here. There also needs to be style and momentum. Alas, though, The 355 for the most part alternates between deafening gun shootouts and frequently whispered conversations. Oh well, that’s January cinema for ya. The nonsense has to go somewhere.

The 355 is Recommended If You Like: The promise of a “Dewey Decimal System for Cyberattacks”

Grade: 2 out of 5 Common Enemies

Some Quick Thoughts on ‘Pain and Glory’

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

There are two moments in Pain and Glory that really hit me and made me go, “This! Is! Cinema!” The first comes when an animated sequence accompanies Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) telling us about how he learned about the subjects he should have learned in school by instead experiencing them later in life. Hurray for mixed media! The second is the meta ending, which I don’t want to spoil, in case anyone reading hasn’t seen it, but I do want to talk about it, so I suppose I’ll throw in a SPOILER WARNING. It turns out that the flashback scenes with a young Salvador and Penélope Cruz as his mom are actually a film-within-the-film directed by the adult Salvador, and that is such a lovely framing device. [END SPOILER WARNING] And one more thing! There’s a terrifically funny scene in which Salvador and his leading man Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) skip a post-screening Q&A they were supposed to attend but then phone in and the audience gets to hear the vicious, but also slapstick argument they get into. As is typical of Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory is liable to make you laugh aplenty and go, “What a thing it is to be alive!”

I’ll go ahead and give Pain and Glory 11 Chases out of 15 Dragons.

Movie Review: ‘Everybody Knows’ is Another Devastating But Enriching Work From Asghar Farhadi

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CREDIT: Teresa Isasi/Focus Features

Starring: Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darín

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Spanish Profanity

Release Date: February 8, 2019 (Limited)

If you sit down to watch Everybody Knows, you will probably wonder, “What is it that everybody knows?” I know I certainly did. About a half hour or so in, I had a pretty good idea of what it could be, then that suspicion grew into a more fully formed guess, and ultimately my powers of deduction proved to be precisely on point. I do not say this to toot my own horn, but rather, to explain that Everybody Knows makes the answers to its central mystery crystal clear. Far from being frustrated by obviousness, I appreciated that it guided me to exactly where it wanted me to go.

Having previously seen The Salesman and now this latest feature, I know the films of Asghar Farhadi to be about the trauma of outside forces testing the strength of familial units. In this case, the kidnapping of a teenage girl is the impetus for revealing one family’s most sacred secrets. Laura (Penélope Cruz) is a Spanish woman living in Argentina who has returned to her hometown with her two kids in tow for a wedding. When her daughter Irene (Carla Crampa) disappears, she is forced to resolve what lingers from the past with her childhood friend and former lover Paco (Javier Bardem). Farhadi has a knack for understanding that the potential paths of highly stressful situations can swing on a pendulum from further disaster to healing reconciliation. The resolution of Everybody Knows is profoundly, cathartically satisfying – the work of a master craftsman operating like clockwork.

Everybody Knows is Recommended If You Like: Asghar Farhadi’s filmography, The Vanishing

Grade: 4 out of 5 Family Secrets

This Is a Movie Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Take on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Has a Killer Instinct But Not a Killer Execution

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stab Wounds and Attempted Gun Wounds

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Kenneth Branagh’s take on Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous and prolifically portrayed detectives in English literary history, is the sort of man who cannot enjoy his breakfast unless his two eggs are perfectly symmetrically arranged. As he puts, “I can only see the world as it should be.” His skill at identifying culprits so precisely derives from his distaste for his surroundings being askew in any capacity. And when a crime has been committed, things are certainly askew. For a Poirot newbie like myself, this thesis statement is clear and compelling enough. It points to a tradition that has led to a recently predominant style in which brilliant detectives do not fit on a normative intellectual scale.

As for how this version of this most classic of Poirot cases plays out, Branagh is eager to put his many new spins on locked room mystery tropes. But first, certain typical patterns are unavoidable. Each passenger must be introduced with just enough color to make everyone a legitimate suspect, and the camerawork must be painstakingly particular to note every cabin, door, and hidden compartment. But once the setup is through, there is fun to be had (or at least attempted) in mixing up expectations. Oftentimes, characters in these stories try to get away with little lies or hide pieces of their identities that ultimately prove to be quite telling. In this case, the experiment – and alas, mistake – is that everyone gives themselves away with such dishonesty.

A good mystery should be a few steps ahead of most of its viewers. Branagh does indeed pull that off, but he is also a few steps ahead of his own movie, which is not similarly advisable. The result is an end product in which the love for the genre is clear, but the volume at which it is being poked and prodded is too much weight to bear. Most of the performances are overly stiff, stuck in roles within roles in which the unnatural seams start to show. Only Michelle Pfeiffer manages to truly cut loose. Branagh’s formal openness is a good start, but ultimately a star-studded affair like this one requires much more lasting personalities to really hit.

Murder on the Orient Express is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie completism, Marvelous mustaches, the Michelle Pfeiffer Renaissance

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Symmetrical Arrangements