Penelope Cruz, Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, and Lupita Nyong'o in The 355

THE 355

There's nothing much wrong with the action thriller The 355 that couldn't have been fixed with a better director and a better script. Granted, you could probably say the same about most underwhelming movies. But even though Simon Kinberg's direction is resolutely bland, and even though his and Theresa Rebeck's screenplay is perfunctory at best and groan-worthy at worst, it's not at all difficult to enjoy yourself at this hodgepodge tale of espionage, betrayal, and hastily procured designer gowns. It's not every spy flick, after all, that finds its leads kicking back and laughing over drinks to swap stories about their first times. Killing someone, that is.

The storyline, to use that term loosely, is completely superfluous, boasting yet another feature-length game of “Who's got the flash drive?” and meaningless shoot-outs and derivative turncoats and so many plot holes that the screen may as well be a colander. (As usual for a globe-trotting adventure, no one carries an overnight bag, yet everyone always has a fresh supply of expensive evening wear.) Thankfully, though, there is a fair degree of novelty in Kinberg's and Rebeck's central characters, a quintet of female operatives hailing from disparate international locales: American CIA officer Mason Brown (Jessica Chastain); British MI6 agent Khadijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong'o); German BND agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger); Colombian DNI agent Graciela Rivera (Penélope Cruz); and, showing up more than an hour into the film, Chinese mystery Lin Mi Sheng (Fan Bingbing). Each of them, of course, has a specific calling card: Mason is a martial artist; Khajijah is a tech whiz; Marie is good with guns and bikes; Graciela is a psychologist; Lin Mi's glasses are equipped with James Bond gadgetry. But The 355 doesn't work, to the extent that it does, because of its genre bona fides. It works despite them, given that the insanely watchable talents at the movie's core keeps you invested even when they're stuck enacting halfhearted Jason Bourne nonsense or trying to sell portentous drivel such as “This could start World War III!” with straight faces.

Kinberg, whose only other directorial credit was the 2019 Dark Phoenix that's most everyone's least-favorite X-Men movie, doesn't do his cast many favors in the action-thriller department. His staging is thunderously unimaginative – “surprise” explosions and gunshots keep occurring precisely when you predict they will – and barring a couple shots of Chastain contending with precipitous heights, The 355 has the dully professional sheen of a '90s-era, straight-to-video Van Damme title. Yet I will give Kinberg props for either guiding his stars to unexpectedly rich portrayals or, perhaps more likely, simply getting out of their way. There can't be a member of Kinberg's titular spy team who doesn't know how fundamentally goofy this all is. None of the gifted leads, however, appears to be treating the assignment as hack work. Whether through canny analysis-of-slash-improvement-on their roles or merely their unimpeachable performance instincts, Chastain and company take the mission of the film seriously – even when its momentary mission is to be funny – and consequently lend the picture more legitimate, distinctive personality than offerings of this type generally provide.

Edgar Ramirez and Penelope Cruz in The 355

 

There's a fantastic moment here in which Chastain's Mason, preparing for a de facto balance-beam walk between two skyscrapers, allows herself the quickest intake of breath before attempting the feat – fast, amusing recognition of the inherent ridiculousness in having to perform the stunt in heels. Mason is a pro, but that doesn't mean she's not also a person, and The 355 is filled with charming, low-key touches of this sort: Kruger's Marie grunting as she knocks out a series of subway-tunnel lights with her elbow; Nyong'o's Khadijah dryly acknowledging the stupidity of a hotel-room standoff. Even one of the most laughable sequences in the movie – an eternally protracted scene of hand-to-hand combat between Mason, in a resplendent emerald dress, and a thick-necked henchman – winds up having human-scale payoff, considering how long it subsequently takes the spy to physically recover from the fight.

If you venture beyond the five figures being heralded on the movie's poster, there's not a lot else in Kinberg's sophomore release to praise. Édgar Ramirez is wasted in a negligible role; Sebastian Stan plays a smug CIA agent whose half-beard shrieks “Untrustworthy!”; it remains unclear how ground-level control over a jet's operating system could cause that jet to spontaneously explode. (Is there a cockpit button for that?) Yet the exceptional women performing this silliness are entirely convincing and, especially in one rather harrowing plot development, even quite moving, and no one pulls off The 355's blend of Hollywood overkill and real-world emotionalism with more skill than Cruz. Portraying the official novice of the group – a married mother of two with no training in either firing a gun or posing as a flirtatious distraction – Cruz is touching, empathetic, subtly fierce, and, when the script lets her be, hilarious, never more so than when her newbie spy complains via ear piece that her wig is too tight. Bond and Bourne should have such problems.

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

THE LOST DAUGHTER

Olivia Colman is one of the most effortlessly likable film and television presences on the planet. Yet she's also a brilliant actor, and despite the considerable verve and complexity she brings to Maggie Gyllenhaal's writing/directing debut The Lost Daughter (which recently began streaming on Netflix), it may only be Colman's inherent likability that kept me wanting to watch this demanding, draining work for more than a half-hour or so.

In Gyllenhaal's adaptation of Elena Ferrante's novel, Colman plays Leda Caruso, a comparative-literature professor spending her working vacation on a Greek isle. At first, it seems an idyllic respite: the weather is gorgeous; the beach expansive; the hotel's caretaker (Ed Harris) incessantly chatty yet amiable. But you sense something almost malignant in the woman's character when, asked to move her beach chair for a very pregnant fellow vacationer (Dagmara Domińczyk), Leda staunchly refuses. And you may feel an actual, internal pang when, a bit later, a little girl's treasured doll goes missing and her harried mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) is at her wit's end trying to locate it. (She maybe should've thought to look for the plaything in Leda's bedroom.) What transpires, more or less, is a character drama with a psychological-thriller bent, as frequent flashbacks to a 20-something Leda (Jessie Buckley) demonstrate how the needs and affections of her own two daughters led to the burgeoning literary artiste feeling like, in her own words, “an unnatural mother,” and sadly for all, behaving accordingly.

There is enormous artfulness in Gyllenhaal's design. Scenes flow from past to present with beguiling ease; the tension is admirably sustained as Leda's calm exterior begins to crack; and even peripheral figures such as Jack Farthing's former husband to Leda, Peter Sarsgaard's university colleague, and Paul Mescal's friendly bartender serve their thematic purposes feeling fully formed. For my attentions, though, there may be too much thematic purpose. When compared to the subtlety of its acting and elusive dialogue, visual portents such as the bowl of moldy fruit and the worm crawling out of the doll's head can't help but feel artificial and too on-the-nose. And while we're led to expect a climactic, cathartic face-off between Leda and Nina, their ultimate encounter is weirdly vague. (It also feels like we needed three or four more scenes before the closing credits rolled – a not-unwelcome break from the “too many endings” norm of most movies these days, but distracting nonetheless.) I'm glad I saw The Lost Daughter; it's well-crafted and confidently shot, and Colman, as she often does, appears so close to her character's emotions that she's like the living embodiment of a frayed nerve. But “impressive” isn't always the same as “satisfying,” and while I admired much of Gyllenhaal's debut, I can't say I ever felt much of anything.

Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in The Tender Bar

THE TENDER BAR

I'm not sure if there are any hard and fast rules to fashioning a successful screen memoir, but it seems as though the least a filmmaker can do is convince us that the movie's focal character is, in fact, interesting enough to deserve a screen memoir. He isn't at all aided by his material, but director George Clooney sadly fails in this task with The Tender Bar (newly streaming on Prime Video), screenwriter William Monahan's adaptation of J.R. Moehringer's 2005 coming-of-age saga. Even though the movie is irredeemably vanilla – this despite Long Island and neighborhood-tavern settings that allow for a generous dropping of “F” bombs – I don't want to lay too much blame at Clooney's feet. He does a respectable job with his cast, particularly Ben Affleck and a livelier-than-usual Tye Sheridan, and the pacing, atmosphere, and soundtrack selections are consistently pleasant. Yet neither Clooney nor Monahan nor the trio of performers (Sheridan among them) playing/voicing Moehringer himself appear capable of making this wistful drama's fledgling writer someone worthy of 104 minutes of our attention. J.R. Moehringer, in real life, might be fascinating. In his memoir, he might be riveting. In Clooney's The Tender Bar, under the alias of J.R. Maguire, he's just a snooze.

He also, in this telling, appears to have not had it all that bad – at least in comparison to other recent screen-memoir protagonists such as Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle or J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy. Yes, J.R.'s father walked out on him when he was a baby, and he and his mom (Lily Rabe) eked out a lower-middle-class existence in a cramped house with innumerable cousins, his bartending uncle Charlie (Affleck), and a grouchy, flatulent grandfather (the ever-enjoyable Christopher Lloyd). But Clooney's movie makes it hard to argue that, for Moehringer, a lot of youthful damage was done.

Daniel Ranieri and Lily Rabe in The Tender Bar

Why bemoan J.R.'s absent dad when Affleck's Uncle Charlie seems more than willing to pick up the slack, teaching his nephew the ways of the world, recommending great books, slipping him cash, and allowing him to be a “Norm!”-like fixture at his decidedly non-Cheers yet still ingratiating watering hole? Why weep over the Maguires' limited finances when J.R. (because of those limited finances) gets several scholarships to Yale and graduates with a New York Times job – and eventual bestselling memoir – waiting for him? Why sympathize with J.R. for his unrequited love for a fellow student (Briana Middleton) when the gal is obviously helplessly fickle, her parents are jerks, and he's getting laid on top of it? Beyond all this, J.R. has a devoted best friend (Rhenzy Feliz), a terrific roommate situation, the adoration of his uncle's barfly buddies … . Even when his mom is diagnosed with thyroid cancer, as we're told in one of numerous voice-over interruptions, we're informed in that same recollection that surgeons removed both the thyroid and the cancer and everything turned out fine. Am I missing something? Where's the drama here?

Maybe you could make a case that the drama lies in J.R.'s gradual awareness that his disc-jockey father (Max Martini) is an asshole, but that's certainly nothing that we – and probably J.R. himself – didn't know from the outset. All we're left with in Clooney's The Tender Bar, then, is the tale of a moderately underprivileged white boy whose other family members loved him unconditionally and who ultimately employed his Ivy League education and probable contacts to secure himself a book deal. So despite the film's charming performers and considerable friendliness, yeah: Hamlet this ain't. Ron Howard's 2020 opus was unfathomably worse, and in terms of credible adversity, this ain't even Hillbilly Elegy.

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton in Mass

MASS

On December 30, the day before my self-imposed deadline for movies I'd potentially cover in my annual best-of-the-year recap, I saw writer/director Fran Kranz's Mass. To be more accurate, I watched the film on December 30, and then again on New Year's Eve, and then again – barely making my 48-hour-rental window via Amazon – on New Year's Day. I gave strong consideration to including Kranz's intimate drama among my top “21 for '21” inclusions, yet assured myself that the coy comedy of its opening 20 minutes and occasionally overt directorial flourishes should instead relegate it to runner-up status.

So goes the ephemeral nature of “best of” lists. Because as I was unable to get Kranz's movie out of my head in the days that followed that article's publication, I went ahead and purchased the movie – a steal at $14.99 – this past weekend, and am now convinced that I might not have seen a more gripping, resonant, beautifully written and acted film in all of 2021. I've now watched Mass five times. I urge you to watch it at least once … even if description of the subject matter makes you, quite understandably, not want to watch it at all.

To cut to the chase: After a preamble of scene-setting and mild character reveal in a small-town Episcopal church, two couples are invited into a downstairs meeting room. On one side of a carefully positioned table are Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), whose teenage son Evan was killed in a mass-shooting tragedy six years prior. On the other side are Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd), whose teen son Hayden murdered Jay's and Gail's child, and nine others, in that high-school attack before taking his own life. And for the remainder of Kranz's film, excepting a few minutes before the credits roll, the four parents sit there in that horrible, beautifully sunlit room – all of them desperate for closure, but none of them knowing how that can happen, or what that might feel like.

Having read that, there may be a significant number of you who silently decided “No thank you” and politely moved on to our paper's advice column or crossword puzzle. I can't blame you. Mass is a tough sit. Or it would be if Kranz's feature-length debut weren't so achingly good. I don't want to say too much about the experience for fear of raising unreasonable expectations. It is, after all, a movie more akin to recorded theatre, and its most aggressive action involves someone setting down a box of tissues. But I'm also afraid I couldn't come close to doing this work justice even if I did want to blather on for a thousand-plus words.

Reed Birney and Ann Dowd in Mass

Kranz is a frequent film actor who also appeared on Broadway with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield in Death of a Salesman, and his stage leanings and talents are evident in his exquisite timing of conversation, clever acknowledgment of the (invisible) proscenium arch, and dialogue that manages to sound both naturalistic and finely heightened. The insightful, revealing, heartbreaking monologues don't come off as monologues so much as thoughts and feelings the characters have lived with for six years and are finally able to give voice to. Yet much of Kranz's skill as a screenwriter, and certainly as a director, lies in what isn't said. For instance, we don't need to be told, and are never told, that Richard and Linda separated after the tragedy; we understand their situation through a random nod to Richard “flying in” for the meeting and the couple's absence of wedding rings. We also don't need, or receive, explicit mention of the national scope of this particular tragedy. References to the concerts held in the victims' names and Richard's reveal that “the world mourned 10, we mourned 11” are more than sufficient. While Mass might frequently sound, and play, like a play, Kranz's original script doesn't feel stagy. It just feels true.

Ditto the performances. Agreeable early company though they are (and despite the film's seven-member cast earning this year's Independent Spirit Award for ensemble performance), there isn't much for Michelle N. Carter and Kagen Albright to do here, and the sprightly, valiant Breeda Wood, at the beginning and end, has to pull off nearly all the film's comedic bits completely on her own. But what the others provide is utterly magical; for this viewer, at least, they handily replicate the sensation of attending a shattering stage drama in which you can never tell which performer is your favorite. (Mass isn't based on a play, but expect Kranz to soon be successfully argued into making it a play.) Birney's all-business demeanor gradually reveals inconsolable levels of grief and guilt. Isaacs' restrained fury is unleashed in a detailed, minute-by-minute accounting of the schoolhouse terror. Dowd blends maternal love with devastating confusion in ways to make your gut ache. And Plimpton, who spends most of the movie barely able to vocalize Gail's pain, finally does so in a torrential happy/sad memory that underlines the unbearable dichotomy of needing to forgive and so very much wanting not to forgive. I've viewed Mass five times, so far, not because it's fun. It's absolutely not. But Kranz's movie and his peerless performance quartet are unquestionably alive, and I've felt alive, and alert, and grateful, every time I've watched it.

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