Movie Review ~ The 355

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 ~ X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants

Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Boo Boo Stewart, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Ok, I believe by now we’ve established the kind of reader-critic relationship that allows me to be as open and honest with you as I possibly can.  So, I the spirit of putting it all out there on the table I need to tell you that the X-Men and all their variations have never really been my thing.  Aside from a childhood desire to beat the SEGA game, I’ve never truly warmed to Professor X and his motley crew of mutant heroes and villains…even after seven films.

Though the overreaching message of the film (we’re all mutants in some form or another and that’s ok) is a positive one that has the ability to speak to anyone, there’s something about the over eagerness of the filmmakers to constantly “get it right” that I find myself enjoying the spectacle at a distance.

It doesn’t help that the quality of the movies hasn’t maintained any sort of consistency since X-Men was released in 2000.  The first sequel improved upon its predecessor but when original director Bryan Signer vacated the series for Superman Returns the third entry landed with a thud.  Spinning off the series into a poorly executed Wolverine origin story further dug a hole for the franchise before 2011’s X-Men: First Class saved a listing ship.  I didn’t dislike 2013’s The Wolverine as much as my colleagues but by that point fans were a little sensitive to their mutants getting less than stellar cinematic adventures.

Now we’ve arrived in the present with X-Men: Days of Future Past…but we won’t stay there long as the enjoyable seventh entry of the series is more interested in looking back than moving forward.  There’s a lot (A LOT) going on in Simon Kinberg’s script…so much so that I often found myself struggling to remember how all the pieces fit, who is who, and what decade we’re in.  After an opening in a desolate not-too-distant future, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, who must have been paid in how many bicep veins are present) is sent back to the early 70’s by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) to prevent rouge Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) from setting a series of events into motion in the past that will have a deadly impact for the future.

Juggling two separate time frames, returning director Bryan Singer manages to keep everything in balance for the most part.  Having watched X-Men: First Class directly before seeing this new film, I was impressed that Singer and Kinberg carved out a new path while keeping continuity through some difficult loose ends previous director Matthew Vaughn left for the new crew to figure out.

Less impressive is an overall humdrum feeling the movie left me with after all was said and done.  I’m not suggesting the movie isn’t terrific popcorn entertainment or doesn’t contain a handful of impressively filmed sequences (like Evan Peters as Quicksilver showing off his talents while Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays in the background) but it all feels overly calculated, designed to allow the franchise to continue without really having to answer for past mistakes.

With Lawrence’s star gone supernova since the last installment, her part is significantly beefed up here.  Mystique has never been so front and center and Lawrence manages to eek out some nice moments under her full body make-up.  As the younger Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy (Trance) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) don’t seem quite as invested this time around, but then again there’s not the same kind of character discovery available to them.  Jackman can play the role in his sleep…and by now it looks like he is.

Moving fast through its 131 minute running length, the end of the film sets up the next volume of X-Men escapades nicely…but then again if you really think about it that’s all the movie seemed interested in in the first place.  Fairly and frequently violent for a PG-13 film, parents should think twice before bringing young children along…Godzilla has less death/carnage in it.

With all my griping about overall ulterior motives, I’ll admit the movie fits neatly into the mode of summer blockbuster by combining all the right elements into the mix.  I think fans will look back and see the mechanics of the script in years to come…but by that time these will be the true days of future past.