The 355

Posted on January 6, 2022 at 5:24 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, brief strong language, and suggestive material
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drinking to relieve stress
Diversity Issues: Extended action-style peril and violence, torture, murder, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Date Released to Theaters: January 7, 2022

Copyright Universal 2021
It’s a little bit “Bourne,” a little bit “Avengers,” and a little bit “The A-Team” except that the main characters are women and unlike “The A-Team,” the plan never really comes together. And by “plan,” I mean the script.

This is a continent-hopping spy story that has such low expectations of its audience that an establishing shot of Paris clearly showing the Eiffel Tower is helpfully labeled “Paris, France” and one of Washington, D.C. showing the Capitol and Washington Monument is helpfully labeled “Washington, D.C., USA.” At least they did not add, “Planet Earth.”

The storyline, which hardly rises to the level of a plot, is similarly simple. There’s a McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is that everyone in the movie is trying to get). There’s a hard drive with a program that could disrupt anything, from financial records to cell phones to airplane navigation systems. Spies from different countries are trying to keep it from the bad guys. At first, they are each on their own. But, hang on for the big surprise, they have to learn to trust each other and work together. There’s another “surprise” I won’t spoil except to say it’s clear what’s happening in the first 15 minutes and most of the movie is getting it, losing it, and getting it back again.

The spies are: American Mace (Jessica Chastain), a CIA field agent gone rogue since the death of her partner, British former MI6 computer whiz who is determined to stay away from spying Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), German Marie (Diane Kruger), fighting the suspicion that she may be a double agent, and Colombian Graciela (Penelope Cruz), who is a therapist, not a spy, insisting she will never use a gun, and just wants to get home to her husband and children. Other members of the cast whose roles I won’t spoil are Sebastian Stan (Bucky in the MCU) and Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing.

The title refers to a real-life female spy of the Revolutionary War era whose identity is still unknown to this day. You’d be much better off watching that story in the television series “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”Even by the very, very low standards of early January movies (Liam Neeson, where are you?), always a dumping ground for films the studios want to get off their books, and even with an all-star cast (two Oscar-winners in this mess!) “The 355” fails in its most basic tasks, telegraphing every development with a cinematic bullhorn (you think Graciela is not going to end up shooting a gun?). Only Bingbing is at all credible in the fight scenes and she arrives too late to make it worthwhile. There are a couple of brighter moments when the ladies are just hanging out, but the action scenes are poorly staged and the non-action scenes are repetitive and dull. The scariest part of the movie is the conclusion promising a sequel.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action violence with chases, explosions, shooting, torture, poison, and fight scenes.

Family discussion: Why did the spies decide to trust each other? When did they trust the wrong people?

If you like this, try: “The Transporter” and “Hobbs & Shaw,” and better films from these performers

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The Counselor

Posted on October 24, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealers, drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Very graphic and disturbing violence with characters injured and murdered, decapitations, guns, sexual violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2013

the-counselor-posterCormac McCarthy’s spare, bleak, and very literary prose has made for some compelling cinema, most effectively in No Country for Old Men and The Road and the adaption of his play for an HBO movie, The Sunset Limited.  In his first original screenplay, he shows his flair for dialog that is half gangster, half poetry, but he is still more writer than visual story-teller.  He needs to learn to trust the audience.  If you show something, you don’t have to tell it, and you certainly don’t have to tell it more than once.  Some good ideas and some gorgeous talk get lost in an awkward, over-the-top, you’ve got to be kidding me mess.  Other writers are better at adapting his ideas for film than he is.

Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a handsome lawyer with a lot of low-life clients and a gorgeous girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) who adores him.  What he does not have is a name.  We never hear him called anything but “counselor.”  He does have — a very bad combination — a plan to get a lot of money very quickly, some friends and clients involved with some very bad people, and a wildly unrealistic notion that he can veer off of that path of what’s legal just one time and then get right back on.  If you have any confusion about what happens next, check your ancient Greek dramas with the hashtag #hubris.  Or, just listen to the loving description of a method of killing people from Reiner (Javier Bardem) that involves a wire noose that tightens inexorably around the neck.  METAPHOR ALERT.  Don’t even get me started on the diamond seller the counselor visits to buy an engagement ring, the one who explains that in the world of diamonds, what we look at are the imperfections, sells him a cautionary stone, and tells the counselor, “We will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.”

Renier also has a girlfriend named Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who not only MORE METAPHORS COMING loves to watch her pet cheetahs chase and devour jackrabbits but has cheetah-themed tattoos and eye make-up, a gold tooth, and an amber ring the size of a cheese sandwich. She also brings new meaning to the term “auto-erotica” in a crazynutsy scene narrated by Bardem that is literally over-the-top.  Note: Diaz is very limber and has lovely long legs.  “I asked her whether she had ever done anything like that before and she said she had done everything before,” Renier says, a little dazed.  Also, the drug smuggling involves trucks carrying human waste and occasionally a dead human body.  On the side, it says, “We pump it all!”  Is it just me, or is that a METAPHOR, too?  Did I mention Renier lives in a glass house?

Ridley Scott’s direction, the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, and outstanding performances keep the movie watchable, even when it isn’t working, until the literary pretentiousness overcomes it with a series of speeches near the end that tip the scales from poetic, and ironic to purplish and self-parodying.  In small roles, Rosie Perez, Rubén Blades, and Natalie Dormer create vivid characters who evoke the work the counselor thought he could keep himself apart from and does not realize he has already been changed by.  “If you think that, Counselor, that you can live in this world and not be a part of it, you are wrong,” Renier tells him.

McCarthy knows this is a world where the problem that brings you down is one that in normal world would be quickly explained and quickly forgiven.  These people do not believe in explanations.  “They’re a pragmatic lot.  They don’t believe in coincidences. They’ve heard of them.  They’ve just never seen one.”  There are no second chances.  And then, as Renier explains, “it’s not that you’re going down.  It’s about what you’re taking down with you.”

I enjoyed the elliptical epigrams tossed around by the characters, especially Brad Pitt’s cowboy, a loner who has a bit more perspective than the others.  “How bad a problem?” the counselor asks the cowboy.  “I’d say pretty bad.  Then multiply it by ten,” he answers.   These are people who expect they are being listened to by law enforcement, so it makes sense that they would corkscrew their communications.  And it was fun to see the actors having fun with their roles, especially Diaz, with her asymmetric hair, cut to a point that looks like it could etch metal, swanning into a church to try out this confession idea she had heard about.  With all the flamboyance, though, the movie’s best moments are the quiet ones.  Everything ends up turning on a decision that was not really a mistake.  And the most terrifying moments are not the ones with spurting blood or automatic weapons.  They are a quiet phone call and a simple, “Hola!”

Parents should know that this film is an extremely violent crime drama with very disturbing and graphic images including decapitation. Many characters injured and brutally killed.  It includes guns, crashes, drug dealing, drinking, smoking, very explicit sexual references and situations, and very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Who suffered the most? Why do we never learn the counselor’s name?

If you like this, try: “No Country for Old Men” and “The Lincoln Lawyer” and the books of Cormac McCarthy and James M. Cain
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To Rome With Love

Posted on June 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm

The quality of Woody Allen’s films is incidental, even coincidental.  Woody Allen and Adam Sandler may occupy opposite ends of the comedy spectrum when it comes to their audiences and cultural touchstones.  Sandler’s touchstones are “I Love the 80’s” faded celebrities and Allen’s are philosophers, New York, and jazz musicians.  But they have more in common than their mutual fixations with nostalgia, male characters afflicted with arrested development, and sex.  Both, thanks to the enabling devotion of their dedicated audiences, are enabled to make movies that are closer to conceptual art than fully-realized story-telling.

For Allen, who averages a film a year, his real art form is the perpetual production schedule. The prestige factor means that he can get top actors — both in ability and box office appeal to reassure the budget guys — for microscopic fractions of their usual fees.  He keeps the same crew.  All he has to do is provide a script.  But because his priority is getting the film made rather than awards, critical reception, or selling tickets, movies like “To Rome With Love” feel like they came out of the oven without being fully cooked.  It plays like a first draft, or even a handful of random notes grabbed at random from a drawer because the cameras were ready to roll.

Allen continues his tour of the capitals of Europe by setting his story in Rome, or, I should say, stories.  A stunningly unoriginal opening shows us an Italian traffic cop, who advises us that Rome has many stories.  Like an episode of “The Love Boat” he combines four stories, and these are variations on the themes of love, sex, music, aging, and what one character calls “Ozymondian melancholy,” a nostalgic pre-occupation with the past.

A successful architect (Alec Baldwin) confronts a younger version of himself (“The Social Network’s” Jesse Eisinberg), or perhaps himself as a younger man, to try to prevent him from making a disastrous mistake by betraying his lovely, stable, devoted girlfriend (a criminally underused Greta Gerwig) with her high-maintenance friend (a criminally mis-cast Ellen Page, who is supposed to be seductive and neurotic).  A naive newlywed couple from the country come to the big city on their honeymoon.  As they prepare to meet his very conservative relatives, who have offered him a high-paid job, they get tangled up in deception that includes a fetching prostitute (Penelope Cruz, one of the film’s highlights) and a predatory movie star.  An ordinary man (Oscar winner Roberto Benigni) finds himself inexplicably a celebrity, hounded by paparazzi and fans who are fascinated with the most mundane details of his very mundane life.  At first, he enjoys the attention and takes advantage of his fame, but then it becomes tiresome.  And Allen himself plays a retired opera director who is visiting his daughter (Allison Pill, who was Zelda Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris”) and meet her Italian fiancé  He discovers that the fiancé’s father, an undertaker, has a magnificent tenor voice, but only in the shower.  There is a lot time spent on extraneous conflicts with the Allen character’s wife (Judy Davis) and the lefty politics of the younger couple that never goes anywhere.

There are some very funny lines and some mild humor from the situations, but the best that can be said of it is that just as not much energy was expended in making it, not much will be required to enjoy and then forget it.

 

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Posted on May 19, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Jack is back.

And he is doing what he does best — stealing the movie from everyone else.  Johnny Depp continues Captain Jack Sparrow’s conquest of center stage with this fourth in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, which abandons any pretense of having anyone else as the hero, and just lets him take over.

The series inspired by a theme park ride has for the first time relied on a book as its source.  According to the credits, it is “inspired by” On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, an award-winning fantasy novel about Blackbeard and the fountain of youth.  The Disney series characters are grafted onto the story, which takes us from the courts (in both senses of the term) of London to Spain and then back to the Caribbean, with some historical figures like King George II and Blackbeard.  And we also get to enjoy zombie crewmen, a gallant missionary, sword fights, Keith Richards, chases, explosions, a pirate with a peg leg, shifting loyalties, daring rescues, revenge, voodoo dolls, a carefully balanced struggle on a shifting surface, and mermaids summoned by song who are as deadly as they are gloriously beautiful.  Hurray for summer movies!

Director Rob Marshall (“Nine,” “Chicago”) takes over seamlessly from Gore Verbinski, adeptly managing the tumult of the various characters (three pirate captains plus Penelope Cruz!), locations, and perils.  And everyone is looking for the fountain of youth, where you can steal someone else’s years if you have the chalices — and a mermaid’s tear.

In the previous films, Captain Jack Sparrow’s rapscallion impishness set off nicely the brave, honorable, but not exactly colorful romance of Will and Elizabeth.  Here, Ian McShane, with his gimlet eye and gravely rumble of a voice, joins the cast as Blackbeard, “the pirate all pirates fear,” to remind us that pirates can be ruthless.  “If I don’t kill a man every now and then they forget who I am,” he explains, leaving Jack to be as close as we get to a hero.  Cruz plays Angelica, a woman Jack once wronged who may be more of a pirate than he is.  “You haven’t changed,” she says to him.  “I haven’t found the need,” he replies.  And that pretty much sums up the enterprise.

 

(more…)

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Nine

Posted on April 27, 2010 at 8:08 am

High profile director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) has everything he needs to make his ninth movie and more. Much more. It is Italy in the early 1960’s and Guido is a glamorous celebrity, a name brand, a commodity. His production team is ready, including his close friend and adviser, costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench), his star and muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman), and his producers. He also has a devoted wife Luisa (Oscar winner Marianne Cotillard), a mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz), a mother (Sophia Loren), a pretty reporter from Vogue named Stephanie who wants more from him than an interview (Kate Hudson), and memories of the first woman to teach him about desire Saraghina (Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas).

What he does not have is a script, or even an idea of where to begin.

Which gives him something in common with director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), because beyond the idea of a director who has too much on his mind and not enough ideas this movie does not have anything to say. Marshall has a great appreciation for female beauty and a lot of style. That’s a great reason to watch a music video but it is not really a reason to make or watch a movie.

Marshall trots out his bevy of international beauties, and each gets a musical number, some of them stunning. Fergie’s deep, rich-throated “Be Italian” and an almost-endless chorus line of tambourine-beating back-up singers, is sheer electricity. But the only one that comes close to reaching that level is Hudson, channeling her mother, Goldie Hawn, in a spangled silver mini-dress and go-go boots.

Cruz finds some sizzle in the notorious “Call from the Vatican” number, though no one can match the late Anita Morris, whose performance was considered too incendiary (and her costume too revealing) for the Tony Awards broadcast in 1982. But the musical numbers are not up to the level of “Chicago” and the lyrics in particular cannot stand up to the loving attention given to them by these actresses. At the end, it’s as empty as its subject.

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