Movie Review ~ Parallel Mothers

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two unmarried women who have become pregnant by accident and are about to give birth meet in a hospital room: Janis, middle-aged, unrepentant and happy; Ana, a teenager, remorseful and frightened.

Stars: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In film history, there have been fine examples of actors and filmmakers who have become known for their strong working relationships with a particular actor. Scorcese and DeNiro (and DiCaprio), Allen and Keaton, Tarantino and Jackson, Hitchcock and Grant, Kurosawa and Mifune. All-stars and their directors with at least one film are mentioned in boldface whenever their bio is listed. After working on seven films together since 1997, you’d have to add Penélope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar to that list as well. With the release of Parallel Mothers, the deck is reshuffled as to which project you’d put into the top position as the crown jewel of their working relationship. 

It all started with Live Flesh precisely 25 years ago, the same year she appeared in Abre los ojos, remade four years later as Vanilla Sky, where she’d recreate her work and begin her relationship with Tom Cruise. It was followed in 2002 by Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning All About My Mother before they re-teamed for Cruz’s first brush with an Oscar nomination in 2006’s Volver.

Several more films have been together, even after Cruz took home the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 2008 for Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. Still, while Almodóvar has always given the star some choice roles, it’s been a minute since she’s carried the film almost entirely on her own. After making his most personal film to date with 2019’s Pain and Glory and featuring Cruz as a proxy for his mother, Almodóvar is back with a vehicle tailor-made for the terrific talents of his international star. It’s taken me a while to completely hop on the Cruz train, stopping several times over the years to hop off and reconsider my travel plans, but with Parallel Mothers, I’m ready to jump on for the complete voyage. Representing the very best of what Cruz and Almodóvar do well both separately and together, this melodrama from Spain snags you right the start with a breathtaking image. It leaves you with another that will haunt you long after it ends.

That first shot is of Janis (Cruz, Murder on the Orient Express), a sought-after photographer in the middle of a shoot with, of all things, an equally famous archaeologist (Israel Elejalde). The obvious sparks are flying between the two. The chemistry on display eventually leads initially to Janis asking Arturo if he’d be willing to help her with a project close to her heart, that of finding answers to the mass burial of her relatives and others from her home village during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps not the most romantic of propositions, but it leads to Janis becoming pregnant and finding herself a likely single mother giving birth alone and staying in the same hospital room as Ana (Milena Smit, Cross the Line), a teenager staring down her own unique set of entanglements. As the two women give birth almost simultaneously, they lean on each other for support, promise to keep in touch, then go their separate ways.

To say what happens next would maybe reveal a bit more than Almodóvar would like you to know going in. And really, it’s best to know as little as you possibly can because while I wouldn’t exactly describe the plot of Parallel Mothers as serpentine, it twists in on itself just when you think you’ve gotten comfortable. Plot developments allow Cruz and Smit to explore intriguing areas of what it means to be a mother and the striking questions when the unpredictability of life and human behavior get in the way of best-laid plans. The through-line of the piece is always the advocacy Cruz undertakes for the sake of honoring the memory of her grandfather and men of his village, and Almodóvar has put that political slant into this piece to call out the atrocities of war buried over time. The women were left to pick up the fragments of lives/love left behind, and as Almodóvar shows through images both easily explained and up for interpretation (like that aforementioned last shot) the toll this took over time.

Many actresses (and actors) in Hollywood will watch Parallel Mothers and wish all directors would turn a lens on them as Almodóvar does for Cruz. Capturing her impossible beauty is one thing, but allowing her charm and character flaws to come through is a bold choice, and it only makes the character more deeply felt and realistic. The film trades on some melodrama in style and overall tone around the middle section, but it’s a rhythm only someone that’s worked with Almodóvar could balance so evenly, and Cruz nails it. I think it’s the best performance by an actress of 2021 without question and indeed a kind of apex of Cruz’s career up until now. She’s matched nicely with the intriguing Smit, vulnerable at the outset only to return later as a creation more maturely mysterious. As usual, in addition to having fantastic taste in the look of his production design and costuming, Almodóvar brings in a dynamic supporting cast. As Ana’s mother dreams of stage stardom, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón gives the audience a third category of a mother who views the role quite differently than the Cruz or Smit characters do. Then there’s Almodóvar favorite Rossy de Palma, not quite as vibrant as she has been in past films but contributing the same strength to each scene.

At this point, it’s still up in the air if Parallel Mothers will play well enough to land Cruz an Oscar nomination this year. I think if she gets in, she’s winning it (though Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos is closing in on a lock) but being left out of a few key races doesn’t look promising. Here’s hoping she’s recognized for this shattering work and that Almodóvar gets a spotlight shoutout somewhere along the way as well. The movies he makes, even a short one like 2020’s The Human Voice, are so far above the norm; they should be more of an event when they arrive.

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.