Movie Review ~ The 355

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a top-secret weapon falls into mercenary hands, a wild card CIA agent joins forces with three international agents on a lethal mission to retrieve it, while staying a step ahead of a mysterious woman who’s tracking their every move.

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

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Back in those free-wheeling pre-pandemic days, it was a lot easier to track the ebb and flow of a movie season.  Coming into the new year, all the studios had put their might behind the films they hoped could snag an award or two so January was a common “dumping ground” for their less than desirables, a wasteland of also-rans where they could offload a turkey that was beginning to mold or take something off the shelf which had been gathering conspicuous dust.  Now, however, when films have been delayed due to multiple release date shifts, it’s getting harder to know what is truly a movie in trouble or one just caught in the crosshairs of a global health crisis affecting the entertainment industry.

When marketing for the spy thriller The 355 kicked back up again recently, I vaguely remember seeing early trailers for it well over a year ago and having my interest pinged because of the international cast assembled by Universal Studios.  No dummies to foreign distribution and marketing, the film boasted top talent (if not exactly mega-watt superstars who guaranteed blockbuster opening weekends) that held smart appeal teaming up for an ensemble adventure which felt like Jason Bourne meets Oceans Eight in execution.  Swallowed up by a number of moves on its way to opening, it’s only now being released nearly a year after originally scheduled and while I would love to report it’s one of those good movies with bad timing, it’s a cringe-y outing for a number of likable actresses attempting to act smart through a pretty dumb film.

A deadly device has been created that, when activated, can tap into the electronics of any system in the world and take control.  Whole cities can be shut-down, airplanes can be crashed, you name it.  Obviously, it’s a weapon every bad guy or gal would want to get their hands on and luckily there’s only one of them in the world and conveniently there’s only one person who knows how to make it.  The opening finds DNI agent Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez, Point Break) locating the mechanism and its creator before it can fall into the wrong hands but not before the CIA is alerted to his location.  Sending their two best agents Mace Brown (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastain Stan, I, Tonya) to broker a deal with Rojas in Paris, the plan goes haywire thanks to German agent Marie (Diane Kruger, Welcome to Marwen) intervening, sending a number of standard plot mechanics into motion across a global playing field.

I won’t spoil the details of just how Oscar-winning stars Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther) and Penélope Cruz (Pain & Glory) enter the picture, but both feel miscast in roles that don’t quite suit them.  Take Nyong’o, as a former MI6 agent who tells one character that she is a top computer specialist who is the best in the world as what she does when listing her achievements and then within minutes is telling the same person she can’t crack the code on a locked iPhone.  Cruz may have it a little worse, spending most of the movie either whimpering that she “doesn’t want to be here” (join the club) or wearing one of The 355’s 355 questionable wigs.  Both actresses are better than this and by the time the movie realizes it is underserving the Academy Award winning stars, it’s too late to fix it. (And it does it in a shamefully gross way involving the type of violence only a studio forced rewrite could have asked for.)

Born from a desire Oscar-nominated star Chastian (Lawless) had to create a female-driven spy franchise to rival the likes of James Bond or a modern-day Mission: Impossible, The 355 (a reference to the codename of an unidentified female spy who fought for the Patriots during the American Revolution) was written by playwright Theresa Rebeck who’s previous known-for was the TV series Smash.  The musical TV series Smash.  Now listen, I’m not saying Rebeck is perhaps a bit underqualified for the type of dynamic writing a film in this genre requires but the entire endeavor pretends like the audience has never seen a film involving espionage before.  Double crosses are introduced as if we can’t see them coming from a mile away and romantic or familial entanglements are awkwardly asked to take center stage at inopportune times.  Truthfully, it plays like a bad pilot episode of a show for television…and with a PG-13 rating that prevents much bloodletting or violence it’s not even cable television but something from the NBC Wednesday Night line-up.

Directed by Simon Kinberg who was also behind the fantastically reviled X-Men: Dark Phoenix (which I will still stand-by as not nearly as bad as people said it was), the action sequences are so goofy looking at times it feels like it was created by the studio photo editor based on what would look good in a promo shot.  There’s nothing special about any of the heavily choreographed fights and early on they start to blend together.  Even the more strident stunt sequences don’t appear ground-breaking, they just look painful.  Keep your eyes open for Chastain jumping from a crane to a shipping crate. She (or, rather, her stunt double) hits the side of the crate so hard all I could think about for the rest of the movie were how many ribs were totally shattered as a result.  It almost feels like this is the fifth film in a franchise because so little effort has been put into making The 355 stand out in any way from others in its field.  I think it’s admirable Chastain talks the talk and walks the walk in work she has faith in (her performance in The Eyes of Tammy Faye in 2021 was really incredible, another project that came about based on her interest) but if the end result is something as lackluster as this, it tends to diminish the original intention. 

Movie Review ~ Welcome to Marwen

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.

Stars: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Eiza Gonzalez, Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Weaver

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: We’re often asked to provide our instant reactions to movies on our way out of advanced screenings.  This can be a good way to get some off the cuff remarks or quick takes to bring back to the studios as to what audiences felt the moment the lights come up and the credits start to roll.  I struggle in these moments to come up with two to three sentences that summarize two hours of thoughts, preferring to let the feeling marinate for a while until I can let it flow out here.  My overall opinion of the film rarely changes, it just solidifies as my mind works on detailing why I feel the way I feel.

With Welcome to Marwen, I knew leaving the theater it was one of the most troubling movies I’d seen all year but the way the movie nagged and gnawed at me in the days since I saw it was truly something to behold.  Hailing from a major studio with a well-liked star and Oscar-winning director, it’s a drastically misguided misfire that has no clue who it’s audience is or how to balance its technically impressive effects with a dramatically inert narrative.

Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (The Secret Garden) turn the doc into a narrative feature starring Steve Carrell (Beautiful Boy) as Matt Hoagancamp, an artist recovering from a brutal beating that has found a most unique coping outlet.  Creating a WWII-set world of his own in his backyard, he photographs dolls inhabiting his town of Marwen in various adventures featuring Cap’n Hogie, a stand in for Matt himself.  While Cap’n Hogie is the bomber jacket wearing tough guy in the group, he often needs to be saved by an assembly of leggy female figures that are modeled after various women in Matt’s own life.

This is where the movie starts to provide some extremely problematic issues it can just never recover from.  The real-life women in Matt’s world are his Russian caretaker (Gwendoline Christie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a war veteran we briefly see in flashbacks (Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures), a friendly worker at his local hobby shop (Merritt Weaver, Signs, by far the best performance in the film), his co-worker at a local diner (Eiza Gonzalez, Jem and the Holograms), and most disconcerting of all, a sexy French maid inspired by a nameless woman Matt sees in an adult film (played by Leslie Zemeckis, the directors real-life wife…yuck).  In reality, the women are portrayed as normal human beings but in Matt’s fantasy world their sexuality is heightened, their cleavage is on display, their skits are hiked up to crotch level, and they exist only to serve and protect Cap’n Hoagie’s wishes.  Basically, they are sex figurines.  Which would be fine if the movie ever acknowledged that this is odd and oddly disrespectful…which it never does.

When Nicol (‘I spell it with no “E” ’) moves in across the street, Matt becomes infatuated by the woman who seems to understand his quirks, especially as it relates to his penchant for wearing women’s high heels.  That Matt has a shoe fetish is but one of several of his eccentricities the film introduces only to never fully explore to any kind of satisfactory degree.  Though not gay, Matt finds that while wearing a woman’s shoe he can more easily get at the ‘essence’ of women (or, “dames” as he calls them) and, bless her heart, Nicol barely bats at eye when he delivers this corker of a revelation.  As played by Leslie Mann (This is 40) Nicol has a restrained charm that suggests she’s put up walls to guard her own emotional sensitivities.

Aside from it’s odious devaluation of nearly every female character that walks across the screen (Christie and Monáe are barely in the film in human form), the movie also has a rather large blind spot when it comes to talking about PTSD and the lasting effects of mental illness.  Clearly, Matt is suffering from major mental health problems brought on by his vicious attack and Zemeckis and Thompson don’t seem the slightest bit interested in presenting Matt with any kind of support outside of his made-up world of Marwen.  His interactions with people outside of Marwen are either comedic fodder or humiliating emotionally – it’s no wonder he’d rather spend time all alone with his dolls.  The one solution presented is in the form of a blue pill medication that no so subtly takes the form of another “doll” named Deja (Diane Kruger) who doesn’t seem to have a real-world counterpart but obviously has a huge hold over Matt’s psyche.

I have absolutely no idea who the audience would be for this movie.  It’s not a family film, it’s not a film an older adult audience will find much value in, and it’s certainly not a movie for the mid-range crowd who have a plethora of better choices this holiday season.  It literally has no target audience and I am mystified at whoever would have thought this would have made for a good feature film.  Carrell seems uncomfortable, and not just in the heels but as this is a Zemeckis film, it’s technical merits are first-rate.  Zemeckis is like a dog with a bone where motion-capture animation is concerned but here the technology works well in making Carrell, Mann, Monáe, and company all realistically doll-like when they are in Marwen.  It’s a good-looking movie, even if it’s rather ugly on in the inside.

Movie Review ~ The Host

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When an unseen enemy threatens mankind by taking over their bodies and erasing their memories, Melanie will risk everything to protect the people she cares most about, proving that love can conquer all in a dangerous new world.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Frances Fisher

Director: Andrew Niccol

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: TBD

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Let’s just face the facts –Stephenie Meyer just isn’t a very good writer.  No matter how much spit shine you put on the film adaptation of her novels you can’t escape that reality.  The four Twilight novels (and subsequent five films) were a worldwide phenomenon…but these always had a shelf life on them.  Her other literary endeavor is The Host and though it was marginally better received in the book community, it’s yet another half-baked saga concerning a love triangle and the impact that has on a continuing battle between two species.

To its credit, The Host is a bit loftier in the message it’s trying to convey but for every inch the film moves forward in making a point about a peaceful society, the sappy romance elements drag it back a few feet.  Worse, the film has to overcome more than a few silly plot devices such as a character having an ongoing internal dialogue with a secondary personality living inside her head. 

If that last statement had you going back and reading it again…maybe I should back up.  The Host is set in the not too distant future where an alien race has invaded our planet and implanted “souls” in our bodies.  These souls are alien life forms from distant planets that are here to restore peace and order to a troubled world.  Problem is, to do so they use our bodies as vessels…destroying our original personality and replacing it with one from the souls.  Though they can access our memories, mankind has become a prisoner in their own bodies. 

Some humans have developed a way to fight their host and that’s where we find Melanie Stryder (Oscar nominee Ronan) as she is implanted with a soul (that calls itself Wanderer…hey…at least it isn’t Renesmee!) that she battles with and eventually learns to coexist with as she leads her physical body to the desert where a small band of freedom fighters await her.  It also helps that her uncle (a surprisingly game Hurt), her brother (Chandler Canterbury), and her love interest (Irons, son of Jeremy) are there as well.

Pursued by a vengeful Seeker (Kruger…doing her best Charlize Theron impression) as Melanie/Wanderer joins the fight, another love interest (Abel) comes into play…creating not so much a love triangle but a rectangle of feelings.  While the film isn’t as dewy eyed or groan-inducing as the Twilight films, there are more than a few moments when your eyes will get a nice workout from rolling around in your head.

In his previous films  Gattaca, Simone, and In Time, director Niccol has created a steely sterile version of the future and those same elements are on display here.  All of the “bad guy” cars are shiny silver (even the helicopters) and everything about the enemies is in perfect alignment.  That contrasts nicely with the rough edges of the remaining un-hosted humans who look like refugees from a Mad Max movie.  Shot in some fantastic vistas in New Mexico, the film looks expensive and has some above average special effects.

It’s too bad that the script doesn’t match up to the production values.  Adapting Meyer’s novel was probably a chore and I think Niccol did his best with it…but an overabundance of cliché situations doesn’t give the film much room to breathe.  Ronan is a decent heroine, though like a groundhog her Louisiana accent only comes out to see its shadow before it retreats.  Irons and Abel are, if possible, blander love interests than the vampires and werewolves in Twilight and Kruger just doesn’t fit the ice queen persona she’s tasked to play.  Only Hurt seems to come out of this unscathed…maybe because he knows not to take everything so very seriously.

When all is said and done I’m glad that The Host was a standalone novel and not one we will see countless sequels for the next few years.  With the recent released (and much better) Beautiful Creatures totally bombing, I’ve a feeling this one will be a hard sell to audiences who are exhausted from tween romances.  For all its sleek effects and occasional on the money social observance, The Host winds up feeling lackluster and sluggish and not the satisfying movie experience that it could have been

The Silver Bullet ~ The Host – Trailer #2

host

Synopsis: A parasitic alien soul is injected into the body of Melanie Stryder. Instead of carrying out her race’s mission of taking over the Earth, “Wanda” (as she comes to be called) forms a bond with her host and sets out to aid other free humans.

Release Date: March 29, 2013

Thoughts:  Thankfully, the second trailer for The Host shows more plot points than the previous teaser released earlier this year.  Based on Stephenie Meyer’s novel (that was received much better than her Twilight tomes), I’m interested to see how this one develops.  It looks fairly run of the mill to me but I’ve enjoyed director Andrew Nicol’s work in the past — his cooly futuristic Gattaca is still a favorite – so there is some hope.  I’m hoping this is less lovey-dovey than The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 but having not read the novel I’m unsure of how similar the two films will be.