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Movies in Theaters and at Home for a Cold Weekend

George Wolf George Wolf Movies in Theaters and at Home for a Cold WeekendThe 355 - Photo via IMDb
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 It’s January. There’s snow. It’s cold. Let’s just watch a movie. 

There’s plenty to choose from in theaters, including all the great stuff that came out around Christmas that you still haven’t seen. But if you are all caught up and looking for something in theaters, or something from the warm safety of your couch, here’s what’s what.

The 355

In theaters

by George Wolf

Apparently, Jessica Chastain pitched the idea of an all-female Bond/Bourne hybrid to director Simon Kinberg while they were making Dark Phoenix together.

Now three years later The 355 is here, and while it’s more memorable than their X-Men installment, the project can never give the duo’s ambitious vision its own identity.

Chastain is “Mace,” a CIA agent sent to Paris with her partner (and maybe more?) Nick (Sebastian Stan). The job is to get their hands on a new cyber weapon that serves as an untraceable master key – and instant entry into any closed system on the planet.

But surprise, Mace and Nick aren’t the only agents hot for that drive, so after 45 minutes of chases and exposition, Germany’s Maria (Diane Kruger), MI6’s Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) and Columbia’s Graciela (Penelope Cruz) agree to team up and fight for the future. Then after another 15 minutes or so, China’s Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) joins the world party.

Actually, Gracie’s a reluctant guest, as she’s really a psychologist and not trained for combat. So while her secret agent sisters do get to be the impressive badasses, it’s Cruz who brings the film some welcome fish-out-of-water levity.

Kinberg, who also co-wrote the script, pushes all the buttons you’d expect from a mixtape full of Bond’s high-style sexy, Bourne’s lethal brooding, and some Danny Ocean misdirection. And most of it – from Chastain in this role to the cybercrime stakes to the moments of telegraphed action and even the girl power makeover – feels pretty familiar, and that familiarity breeds discontent with the two-hour run time.

Events finally escalate in the third act, and as the globe-trotting and the double-crosses mount, Kinberg does deliver one nicely orchestrated set-piece that truly grabs your attention with tension and bloodshed.

Is it enough to merit that next adventure the finale hints at? Not really, but it’s just enough to make one three-year-old conversation worthwhile.

Grade: B-

A Hero

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

If you’re familiar with Asghar Farhadi films such as The Past, A Separation and The Salesman, you already know what to expect from his latest. The Iranian writer/director’s calling card has become the intimate drama of complex moralities and lasting impact, wonderfully layered stories that probe the societal strife of his homeland while ultimately revealing universal insight.

Farhadi does not disappoint with A Hero (Ghahreman), a film that finds him questioning the increasingly blurred lines of truth and perception.

When we first meet Rahim (Amir Jadidi), he is coming home on a two-day leave from prison. Locked up for failing to repay a debt, Rahim is hoping to use his brief amnesty to talk his creditor into withdrawing the complaint in exchange for partial payment.

It doesn’t look promising, until Rahim finds a lost handbag full of gold coins – and returns it instead of selling the coins to pay his debt.

Suddenly, Rahim is a hero. But today’s hero is tomorrow’s milkshake duck, and it isn’t long before distrust of Rahim’s story begins to threaten the promise of freedom and a new job.

Is resisting temptation even worthy of such celebration, and how far will Rahim go to retain his perceived nobility? Is it possible to recognize the moment when the best of intentions can no longer justify a possible deception? Is “the truth” even a realistic goal in the social media age of constantly manipulated realities?

Jadidi crafts Amir with a deeply sympathetic balance of earnestness and suspicion, and the terrific ensemble cast helps cement a sharp morality play that often crackles with the tension of a thriller. Farhadi seems more than comfortable moving further from his stage roots than ever, illuminating Amir’s journey with a realism that patiently waits until the final shot to get showy.

Farhadi makes sure that separating the good guys from the bad guys won’t be easy. The moral high ground of A Hero is constantly shifting, which proves to be the perfect anchor for a gifted filmmaker’s latest examination of modern life’s often messy ambiguities.

Grade: A-

See for Me

At Gateway Film Center

by Brandon Thomas

There’s nothing better than a thriller with a great hook. Sometimes it’s as simple as a private investigator with a fear of heights being used as a pawn in a murder, such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Sometimes the hook is much more elaborate like the narrative and truth-bending nature of Christopher Nolan’s Memento. In director Randall Okita’s See for Me, the hook falls somewhere in the middle as a blind housesitter is pitted against three thieves. 

After a skiing accident leaves her visually impaired, Sophie (Skyler Davenport) is hired to house sit for a wealthy client. After the sun sets, Sophie is surprised by three intruders looking for a massive cash score from the home’s safe. While able to call 911, Sophie needs immediate help and uses an app called “See for Me” to connect with a technician who can relay what they’re seeing through Sophie’s phone. Luckily for Sophie, Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) is a former combat vet. As the intruders become aware of Sophie’s presence, Jessica uses her expertise to direct the at-risk Sophie out of harm’s way.

Great hook or not, See for Me is a fairly simplistic movie in execution. Okita never tries to jazz the picture up with crazy camera work or elaborate set pieces. Panic Room this movie is not (and more so for budget reasons, one would think). Okita uses the frame wisely as the suspense of Sophie’s predicament slowly plays out. The house is one of the stars of the movie with its large rooms, high ceilings, and exposure through floor-to-ceiling windows. Okita makes sure we’re allowed to see so much of what’s happening within the house while Sophie cannot, a strategic move that naturally increases the tension.

Davenport commands every second of her screen time. A visually impaired person in real life, Davenport’s approach to Sophie is one of complexity. There’s a stubbornness to the character as she refuses to be seen as anything less than capable in the eyes of those around her. Sometimes that comes out as hostility toward family, friends and even clients. This stubbornness becomes an important asset as Sophie barters with her would-be captors, and uses Kelly’s guidance to fight back. 

The use of the “See for Me” app threatens to strain believability at times, mostly in how Sophie is turned into an expert marksman with little to no guidance. For a film so grounded for most of its running time, these bits in the movie’s back half tend to stick out and betray its smarter elements. 

Through a clever hook and a great lead performance, See For Me becomes one of 2022’s first stand-out thrillers. 

Grade: B+

France

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

France is the setting for this movie called France about a woman named France. So, subtle it’s not. But the latest from writer/director Bruno Dumont does manage to deliver some stylish eye candy with a fluffy middle that tastes plenty familiar.

Léa Seydoux is mesmerizing as France de Meurs, a celebrity journalist and host of “A View of the World,” one of the most popular talk shows in all of France. She’s juggling fame, her career, and family life with a blasé attitude about it all.

Her home life seems to bore her, the fame is satisfying only when it feeds her ego, and the integrity of her profession never seems to cross her mind. But a sudden traffic accident delivers the overdue wake-up call, and France begins to question if the person she’s become is the person she wants to be.

In the opening minutes, when some nifty editing has France asking pointed questions during an actual press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Dumont sets the stage for an over-the-top satire that never emerges.

Instead, it settles into a very repetitive, 133-minute groove that questions the increasingly blurry line between news and entertainment. But as France continually stages her pre-recorded reports, you realize the breezy nature of the opening has given way to an overwrought narrative that spends 30 minutes belaboring a point that Broadcast News made in five.

Dumont is clearly speaking to his homeland first, though the message will be instantly relatable to U.S. audiences. It’s the film’s tone that becomes more curious in translation.

Seydoux is almost enough to forgive it all, with Dumont making sure his lens loves her as much as the TV cameras love France herself. And while that might not seem a difficult task when the luminous Seydoux is involved, it’s a crucial element that goes a long way toward helping the film resonate as much it does.

Grade: B-

The Scary of Sixty-First

At Gateway Film Center.

by Hope Madden

At some point during The Scary of Sixty-First you may ask yourself, “What in the hell am I watching?” Don’t feel alone. In fact, if you don’t ask that question, you may be the only one.

Director/co-writer/co-star Dasha Nekrasova mines the weak logic of many Satanic horror films to marvel at the subjective reality that’s so prevalent these days.

Noelle (co-writer Madeline Quinn) and Addie (Betsey Brown) move into an uptown NYC apartment. It’s furnished, simultaneously high-end and sketchy, and they’re getting it for a song because the previous tenants had to leave so quickly.

Ripe horror context there. Who were they? Why did they have to leave so quickly? Why did they leave behind all this stuff? Why is there a mirror on the ceiling in one bedroom?

The cinematic style, stilted performances and uptown apartments blur together to form a kind of Seventies-style horror like The Sentinel or The Mephisto Waltz. The most important element: wild leaps in logic—anagrams, prime numbers, cryptic messages.

Conspiracies.

Did the girls’ apartment previously belong to Jeffrey Epstein? Some people say so, specifically the young woman who poses as a realtor’s agent and then as an investigative reporter before finally fessing up that she’s piecing together her own theories about Epstein.

Noelle is in! The sleuthing is on!

Addie, on the other hand, is having some kind of breakdown. Is something in the apartment haunting her? Possessing her?

Nekrasova and Quinn weave together real conspiracy theories about Epstein and other topics to create a fever dream of horror that points out how preposterous and salacious all these theories really are. How these theories speak more to the mind of the believer than to any kind of reality.

Nekrasova is actually pretty empathetic toward conspiracy theorists, even if she clearly thinks they are 1) wrong and 2) probably insane. The film offers bold, wet, pungent lunacy, vivid fantasies pulled from the collective unconscious of folks ready to believe—or imagine—the most effed up scenarios.

Chances are strong that, between the intentionally flat performances and the supremely WTF plotline, The Scary of Sixty-First will not land with most audiences. But it’s a wild vision and I’m not sorry I caught it.

Grade: B-

American Siege

On VOD

by George Wolf

American Siege is already the fourth film that writer and/or director Edward Drake has done with Bruce Willis in just the past two years.

And if you’ve seen any of these projects (Breach, Apex, Cosmic Sin), you know the business model: give Willis a limited role he can shoot in a day while you fill the running time with limp action, painful performances and hackneyed dialog. It’s an assembly-line approach that gets cheers for efficiency, but jeers for quality control.

This time out, Willis is Ben Watts, a former NYC cop enjoying the quiet life as a sheriff in smalltown Georgia. But his lazy days canoodling with his deputy (a Janet Jones sighting for the first time in nearly ten years) are interrupted by a hostage situation.

A small gang of baddies has taken the town doctor (Cullen G. Chambers) hostage, and they have an unusual request: reopen the case of a local woman’s disappearance, or else.

Okay, give Drake credit for a somewhat interesting setup, but it’s one that quickly gets buried under ridiculous plot turns, lazy execution and heavy-handed declarations.

The town is run by one of those Ben-Gazarra-Road House guys (Timothy V. Murphy) who can can summon a goon squad at a moment’s notice. And this one does, because there are secrets in the good doctor’s place that must be protected.

We know this because of the warning Doc gives his captors about opening that household vault with a door right out of Ocean’s Eleven.

“Some things can’t be unseen!’

But don’t be too concerned with the doctor’s realization that “I’ve already said too much!” He’ll be blurting out Not Ben Gazarra’s evil plan in no time, while making sure to blame the entire bloody mess on “coastal elites.”

Mess is right. Even the shoot-em-up payoff is lackluster, while the film’s prevailing worldview is simplistic and pandering, and the ensemble’s forced emoting makes Willis’ latest sleepwalk feel like Daniel Day-Lewis.

But, after about 90 minutes, just remember Drake and Willis already have two more of these gems in post-production, so one of them has to be better than American Siege.

Right?

Grade: C-

Follow George, Hope and Schlocketeer Daniel Baldwin for a week in movie reviews and news on THE SCREENING ROOM podcast.

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