REVIEW: “The 355” (2022)

While its title may be lacking, there’s certainly no shortage of star wattage in the upcoming action spy thriller “The 355”. Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan and Édgar Ramírez front-load this straightforward female-led romp that finds itself in the dismal movie wasteland known as January. That’s when studios notoriously dump movies they don’t really expect to do well.

“The 355” doesn’t exactly break the mold, but it’s also not your usually January movie mush. It’s actually the kind of movie that comes at just the right time for me. After two months of cramming in countless films for end-of-the-year awards consideration and with the surging Omicron variant weighing down morale, spending two hours with an action-packed shoot-em-up filled with personalities I enjoy doesn’t sound too bad.

With “The 355”, Simon Kinberg directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Theresa Rebeck. Think “Mission: Impossible” meets the “Oceans” movie but with a little flavor of its own. The film opens in Columbia where with a cartel boss attempting to sell a Euro-terrorist a data key that can hack into and control any closed network in the world. Power grids, jet planes, cell phones – whoever possesses the key can essentially control (or destroy) anything. The deal goes bad and Colombian Intelligence led by Agent Luis Rojas (Ramírez) swoop down and secure the hard drive that contains the data key.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

From Colombia to Paris, CIA agents Mace (Chastain) and her colleague/close friend Nick Fowler (Stan) converge on the City of Lights after getting wind that Luis has went rogue and is set to sell the hard drive (or is he?). But just as they’re about to apprehend Luis, Agent Marie Schmidt (Kruger) of Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (that’s their CIA) crashes the op in order to seize the hard drive for her government. Both sides want to ensure the data key doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, but they keep getting in each other’s way.

Add to the equation Graciela (Cruz), a psychologist for Colombia’s DNI (yep, that’s their intelligence agency). She’s sent to Paris to convince Luis to come back to Columbia and turn himself in. Meanwhile Mace travels to London to recruit her old friend Khadijah (Nyong’o), a tech savvy cyber-security expert and former MI6 agent, to help track down Luis. And if all of that isn’t enough, another mysterious party (Bingbing) is observing from afar. What’s she after? Who does she work for?

As all of these agencies battle logistics, bureaucracies and each other, the real villains are able to secure the hard drive. This forces Mace, Marie, Khadijah and Graciela to reluctantly join forces if they’re to have any hope of stopping the baddies from potentially triggering World War III. It’s rough going at first, with all of them operating under the mantra “don’t trust anyone”. But as the plot thickens and the action intensifies, the ladies begin to gel.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

While there’s plenty about the story that’s familiar, there are enough twists, turns and double-crosses to keep us guessing. And while these genre flicks tend to be pretty outrageous, Kinberg’s pacing is brisk and fluid to the point that we’re always moving forward and never have time to worry if all the pieces perfectly fit into place. And of course there’s the action. With the exception of one motorcycle get-away that’s edited within an inch of its life, the action is fun and kinetic. Highlights include a couple of terrific fight sequences with Chastain and a jaw-dropping bullet-ridden finale through the top floors of a skyscraper.

I also enjoyed the performances which (considering the talent) shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear are really good. The actresses are handed characters who are given a few extra layers of depth (not many but enough). For example, Mace’s intense dedication and commitment to her work helps hide the loneliness she feels when not on a mission. The hard-nosed Marie has a track record of insubordination to go along with some serious daddy issues. Graciela is a therapist rather than field agent, and she only wants to go back home to her husband and young son in Colombia. Khadijah has found happiness after leaving MI6 but leaves it behind for another field mission.

“The 355” won’t exactly stick with you long after seeing it, nor is it the kind of movie that will wow you with its originality and vision. But it is light and breezy entertainment that happily wears its influences on it’s sleeve. A great female-led cast brings confidence and energy to material that at times needs to be propped up. Still, I was in just the right mood for something like this – something where I could kick back, soak up the style, giggle at the silliness, be thrilled by the physicality, and watch performers I enjoy having an absolute blast. Ultimately, what’s wrong with that? “The 355” opens in theaters tomorrow (1/7).

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Tragedy of MacBeth” (2021)

Writer-director Joel Coen slips away from his filmmaking partner and close brother Ethan in his first solo effort, “The Tragedy of MacBeth”. Coen (who also produced the film alongside his wife Frances McDormand) takes on William Shakespeare’s classic Scottish play, stripping it down and putting just as much emphasis on the haunting visuals as the bard’s eloquent words.

Joel Coen’s captivating take on MacBeth is shot in high-contrast black-and-white and in 1.19:1 boxy aspect ratio which immediately hearkens back to the golden age of cinema. At the same time, some of the images he and DP Bruno Delbonnel capture could be pulled from the pages of a graphic novel. The movie was filmed entirely on soundstages allowing Coen, Delbonnel, and set designer Stefan Dechant to create a bleak and foreboding hellscape, perfectly fitting for the story’s psychological and bloody descent.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

Who better than Denzel Washington to play the titular Thane of Glamis, a valiant and renowned general in the Scottish army. We first see MacBeth on his way to report his war victories to the benevolent King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). While journeying across the hot sands with his trusted friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel), MacBeth encounters three witches (played by a terrifying Kathryn Hunter) who prophesy of his rise to power.

The first part of the crones’ vision comes true, but MacBeth is quickly consumed with the rest. He wants more power – he wants Duncan’s throne. Urged by his wicked wife (McDormand), MacBeth hatches a plan to commit the damnable offense of regicide. But such wickedness comes with consequences, and soon guilt and paranoia drive the unrighteous new king to the brink of madness.

While watching Coen unfurl his dark vision of MacBeth, you’ll notice more than a hint of theatricality. There’s an undeniable stagy aspect to the film both visually and narratively. At the same time, it’s a stunningly cinematic movie with the seasoned filmmaker making terrific use of space, light and shadows. Surround the imagery with Carter Burwell’s stark and ominous score, and you have a grim and forbidding atmosphere that serves the material well.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

Back to the performances, Coen brings together a stellar supporting cast that includes McDormand, Gleeson, Hunter, a terrific Corey Hawkins as Lord Macduff, the Thane of Fife, Harry Melling as King Duncan’s son Malcolm, Alex Hassell as the vulturous Ross, and Ralph Ineson as The Captain. But it all comes back to Washington who delivers the dense period language with confidence and grace. His Macbeth is more calculated than brutish, although as his heart grows colder Washington shows us a more chilling side of madness.

With his version of “MacBeth” Joel Coen proves himself as a solo director, but is that surprising to anyone? He and his brother Ethan have cemented themselves as arguably the best filmmaking duo of our time. Here, the elder Coen brings his proven visual and screenwriting know-how to some well-traveled material, joining two Oscar winners to put a new spin on timeless Shakespeare’s tragedy. The results are wickedly satisfying and I’m already anxious to see it a second time.

“The Tragedy of MacBeth” will have a limited theatrical release December 25th before streaming on Apple TV+ on January 14th.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Tender Bar” (2021)

Actor turned mostly director George Clooney helms “The Tender Bar”, an upcoming adaptation of J. R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir which recounted his life growing up in a complicated Long Island family. Set mostly in the 1970s and 80s, the story (written by William Monahan) bounces back-and-forth between J.R.’s early childhood years and his time at Yale University in New Haven.

The film opens in 1973 with a dirty beat-up Ford Fairlane chugging down the highway. A mattress is strapped to the top of the car, the trunk lid tied down, and “Radar Love” by Golden Earring plays on the radio. Inside is young J.R. (portrayed by expressive newcomer Daniel Ranieri) and his mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe). Unable to pay their rent, the two are moving back to Long Island to stay with her disapproving father (Christopher Lloyd) until she can get back on her feet.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Through the solemnly observant eyes of young J.R. we learn a lot about his ‘complicated’ family situation. It turns out his deadbeat father (Max Martini) is a popular New York City radio DJ known as “The Voice” who left his family shortly after J.R. was born. He makes the occasional guilt-ridden phone call to his son, but J.R. is mostly left listening to the radio if he wants to hear his father’s voice.

In Long Island, J.R.’s family is a colorful lot. His grandpa’s house is a circus full of aunts, uncles, and cousins. At the top of the list is Uncle Charlie (a terrific Ben Affleck), a much needed father figure who takes J.R. under his wing. Charlie is a brutally honest yet warm-hearted straight-shooter who runs a bar called The Dickens (named after Charles Dickens). There he gives his nephew lessons on “male science” while pushing him to read and write (and discouraging him from playing sports. “You’re not that good.”)

The 1980s scenes sees Tye Sheridan in the role of an older J.R. They follow his time at Yale where he first meets an enchanting yet fickle young woman named Sydney (Briana Middleton). Later we see him finally stepping out to pursue his dream of being a writer. But looming throughout the entire film is his father. Deep down J.R. still holds out hope for his dad and he finally reaches a point where he needs to know where they stand.

The early scenes with young Ranieri are the film’s best (with the exception of a needless gassy grandpa gag) and they do a good job of setting up J.R.’s childhood in a way that helps us to understand the character well. There are some especially good scenes between Ranieri and Affleck, and Rabe gets several strong moments that add important layers to Dorothy.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The later scenes with Sheridan are a mixed bag. This chapter of J.R.’s life at times feels rushed and there were gaps in his story that I would have loved to see filled. I also grew annoyed at his on-again-off-again “relationship” with Sidney. While Middleton is undeniable charming, her character is frustratingly underwritten and ultimately adds nothing to the movie. It’s also a bummer that Rabe more or less vanishes in the second half. But Sheridan is good and he too gets some really strong scenes with Affleck who ends up stealing the show.

With “The Tender Bar” Amazon Studios gives us a thoughtful coming-of-age drama that has the personality and heart you look for in movies like this. Clooney’s direction, though a little scattershot at times, keeps the story together and moving forward. He also knows what he has in the sincere and grounded Affleck who ultimately steals the show. It’s the script the holds things back. There a few too many holes in J.R.’s timeline. And while Clooney tries to plug them the best he can, the story ends up needing more to make it stand out as something special.

“The Tender Bar” is set for a limited theatrical release starting December 17th before releasing on Amazon Prime January 7th.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

These days there is an inescapable buzz that surrounds anything with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s name attached to it. The mastermind behind the stage musical and cultural phenomenon “Hamilton” has been venturing more and more into the world of film – producing, voice acting, and writing music for several recent movies. Now Miranda steps behind the camera for the first time to tell the story of a Broadway star-to-be who never had the opportunity to see his dream realized.

Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” was an influential stage production that inspired a generation of theater playwrights and performers. “Rent” played on Broadway for 12 years and grossed over $280 million. Tragically, Larson never saw its success. He died January 25, 1996 of an aortic dissection, the very day of Rent’s first Off-Broadway preview performance. He was only 35-years-old. He would go on to win three posthumous Toney Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Among those influenced and driven by Larson’s work was Lin-Manuel Miranda. His new film “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” plays as both a tribute to Larson’s legacy as well as a celebration of New York City theater. The script is by Steven Levenson, a Toney Award winner himself who also wrote the screenplay for the woeful film adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen”. Don’t worry, this is an imperfect yet considerably better effort.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Andrew Garfield leads the way, who playing Jonathan Larson with an unbridled commitment. Garfield pours every bit of himself into the role, acting and singing with an infectious enthusiasm. He paints a fascinating portrait of Larson with his unruly crop of hair, manic energy, and an obsessive drive. It’s impressive work that articulates the struggle to be successful while creating something meaningful. It also highlights the personal costs that come with an all-consuming single-minded vision. I just wish it was as interested in the man as it is his art.

“Tick, Tick…BOOM!” was the name of Larson’s autobiographical production that preceded his smash hit “Rent”. The one-man “rock monologue” mixed music, lyrics, and spoken word to tell the origin story of the composer and playwright’s first major stage project – an ambitious futuristic rock musical called “Superbia”. This isn’t easy material to adapt and to Miranda’s credit he takes no shortcuts. Instead, he and Levenson do some crafty tweaking, reorganizing the one-man show into a three-person chamber piece similar to the ones performed on stage since Larson’s death. The difference is Larson himself (through Garfield’s performance) leads the film’s three-person gig.

Miranda’s imagining of a Larson-led stage performance of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is a good framing device that opens up the broader story. His film cuts back-and-forth between the singing of Larson’s songs on stage and the moments from his past that inspired them. These scenes transport us back to 1990 when Larson was bursting with confidence yet burdened with an eerily prophetic sense that he’s running out of time. With his 30th birthday only days away, he feverishly works to complete “Superbia” as if it were his last shot at fame.

We see Larson living out of a cramped apartment spending his time jotting down ideas and pecking away on an old Macintosh. When not waiting tables at Soho’s Moondance Diner, he hangs out with an eclectic bohemian blend of aspiring artists and art lovers. Some, like his girlfriend Susan (an underused Alexandra Shipp) and his childhood friend/roommate Michael (Robin de Jesús) are abandoning their dreams of performing. But Larson’s rabid desire to succeed won’t allow him to quit, even if it hurts his relationships with those closest to him.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

As far as the music, Miranda wisely sticks with Larson’s own songs which often conveys more feeling than the movie’s dialogue. As with any musical, some tunes are better than others. The rousing “Louder Than Words”, the cameo-filled “Sunday”, and the catchy “Boho Days” stand out most. And while I wouldn’t say Garfield has a great voice, he certainly manages the songs well enough, performing them with such spirit and verve.

Miranda’s structure is certainly bold, but it leads to some of the film’s frustrating issues. Most notably, it’s frenetic pace. The movie never slows down long enough to let us see beyond Larson’s creative zeal. By the end there’s still so much about him that we don’t know. Also, not all of Miranda’s choices make sense. Take the decision to intercut one of the few dramatic scenes with the movie’s most comically upbeat musical number (“Therapy”). It’s a case where it probably sounded good on paper, but the style-first approach ends up shortchanging two really good bits.

As it is, “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” is more of a biographical sketch laced with catchy tunes than an actual exploration into the man who was Jonathan Larson. Miranda’s admiration for his subject is never in doubt, and he makes honoring Larson’s artistry his chief focus. And while the film is full of emotion, there’s very little drama. Thankfully a magnetic Andrew Garfield elevates and carries the entire film. This is without question his movie, and he gives the kind of spellbinding portrayal that makes it a lot easier to digest the film’s noticeable shortcomings. “Tick…Tick…BOOM!” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Trip” (2021)

One of my favorite things about each movie year is coming across something completely new and unexpected. Movies that I had never heard of and that were never on my radar, yet caught me completely by surprise. Netflix has done that very thing with their new foreign language flick “The Trip”, an impossible to label Norwegian film from director and co-writer Tommy Wirkola.

I call “The Trip” impossible to label because it can’t be put into any box or assigned to any one genre. It’s a movie that defies any and all expectations and is full of surprises both narratively and visually. It leaps back-and-forth between genres never staying in the same place for very long. To give you an idea, it sometimes plays like a serious marital drama and other times like a pitch-black comedy. One second it’s a crime thriller and then it hits you with gruesome body horror. There’s even a terrifying “Funny Games” sequence complete with the emotional and physical savagery of that Hanake film.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Noomi Rapace and Aksel Hennie play Lisa and Lars, a dysfunctional couple on the outs who set out on a weekend trip to the mountains where they own a rustic lakeside cabin built by Lars’ father. Lars is a dissatisfied director who’s stuck making cheap television soap operas. “You’re no Hitchcock”, his cantankerous father (Nils Ole Oftebro) gruffly reminds him. Lisa is a struggling theater actress who loves performing but has recently been turned down for several big parts. Both are frustrated; both are unhappy. But at least they have each other, right?

Well…..

So they head to the mountains for a much needed getaway, yet they can’t even make it to the cabin without an argument breaking out. It quickly becomes clear that these two despise each other. But maybe this trip is exactly what they need. Could they end up where most couples do in movies like this? You know, rekindling an old flame and rediscovering that love that first brought them together? Well, they’ll first have to overcome a pretty significant obstacle. As it turns out, both have come to cabin with plans of killing their spouse. See what I mean? That’s a pretty big obstacle.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

I don’t want to say more because this truly is a case of ‘the less you know the better’. One of the film’s biggest strengths is its ability to broadside its audience with something they never see it coming. It begins practically as soon as they arrive at the cabin. “Home Sweet Home”, Lisa wryly says signaling that we’re in for a twisted ride. Both lead performances are strong especially from Rapace who has an often underrated ability to express emotion without uttering a single word.

Let me stress, “The Trip” isn’t for the faint of heart. Some scenes are extremely intense and the further it goes the gorier the movie gets. Yet it’s all fused with this wicked sense of humor that often pops up in the most unexpected moments. There were times where I was physically jolted by the violence and other times where I caught myself laughing out loud. What’s most amazing is how Wirkola keeps it all together. Not perfectly (the poop gag is certainly a low point), but more than enough to keep his audience entertained and always wondering what’s coming next. “The Trip” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “There’s Someone Inside Your House” (2021)

The title for the new Netflix horror movie “There’s Someone Inside Your House” has a straightforward old-school ring to it. Too bad it doesn’t come close to the numerous movies it draws from. This drab and forgettable slasher lacks all of the energy, fun, and frights the bloody sub-genre is known for.

And about that title, I’m sure there’s some reason behind it that I don’t know, but “There’s Someone Inside Your House” seems like a generic name slapped on for the heck of it. It certainly doesn’t fit with anything in the movie. Well, there is that one kid who is killed in a house. I guess that’s supposed to be enough?

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Directed by Patrick Brice (“Creep”, “Creep 2”) and written by Henry Gayden (“Shazam!”), the film is an adaptation of a 2017 novel of the same name by Stephanie Perkins. Most surprising are the names listed among the producers – Shawn Levy and James Wan. I’m not sure how the two became attached to the project, but you’ll have a hard time finding any of their influences on the finished product.

The movie begins as many of these things do, with an unsuspecting teen being brutally murdered (ala “Scream”). Here it’s an Osborne High School football player who (like everyone else in the movie) has an ugly secret that the killer takes pleasure in exposing. His or her reasons, we learn later, are unbelievably shallow. It’s one of many things you’ll be asked to go with during the film’s mercifully short running time.

After the opening, it’s slasher formula 101 – introduce the killer’s fodder (most often a group of insufferable teens) and then slice them, carve them, chop them, and impale them one by one. That’s this movie in a nutshell. They do throw in a few lightweight personal stories, but none of them amount to much and none move things forward in any meaningful way.

Rather than concentrating on storytelling, the film’s only dedicated interest is in showing how progressive it is. Not through any keen insight or smartly conceived characters. Instead we get it in bad on-the-nose dialogue and laughably shallow characterizations of progressives and conservatives. Thankfully not many from the left or right go to slasher flicks hoping for profound and invigorating political commentary. For those who do…I have some bad news.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

From there the movie plods along on repeat with the killer targeting another kid and then releasing their darkest secret, usually through a massive group text (good thing the killer has the entire community’s phone numbers). Then of course they’re killed in one of several (mostly) uninspired ways. And when it finally reaches its end, the mystery of who’s behind the mask lands with a thud and offers no meaningful payoff.

Netflix has a wild yet interesting track record when it comes to horror films and they’ve had several stinkers lately. And with the aftertaste of the disappointing brain-mush that was the “Fear Street” trilogy lingering, I was hoping “There’s Someone Inside Your House” would be a nice palate cleanser. Not so. It’s a slushy, forgettable, scare-free movie that’s content with riding the coattails of better movies. “There’s Someone Inside Your House” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS