REVIEW: “THE 355” (2022) Universal Pictures

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Universal Pictures and director Simon Kinberg brings together an incredible group of women from Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penelope Cruz, Bingbin Fan and Diane Kruger in it’s latest release “THE 355”.

The film follows CIA spy Mason (Jessica Chastain), as she goes off-grid after a tangled mess up debacle with fellow agent/love interest Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan). On the hunt for a new mass destruction techno weapon – one that could probably bring World War III about and possibly destroy the world through the power of technology, she teams up with her old friend MI6 cybersecurity expert Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o). But getting the disk eludes them as they battle as well against German BND Agent Marie (Diane Kruger), as they end up combining forces for the common good. As well, Colombian psychologist Graciela (Penélope Cruz), and Chinese MSS spy Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan), come into play as well, though Graciela is no spy – she is a mother with a family back home who was thrown into it all when her friend Luis Rojas (Edgar Ramirez) is killed. As well Lin Mi doesn’t join in until they get closer to the asset and expose the corruption that may take them down some paths that lead closer to home than they realize.

Now does this film involve brain surgery – no it does not. It is however full of decent action and can be entertaining for the most part – if it weren’t so darn predictable with the character story lines. It has it’s ups and downs, for the most part getting a bit more exciting in the second half where the device is put up for auction, but again, we are in the predictable ‘bad guys at the auction’ set-up here. And as I always say, you are only as good as your villain, which here is once again, predictable.

However all is not lost as the five leading ladies are all quite superb with their distinctive characters with all of them given a decent amount to do and flesh out their characters, though Fan’s Lin Mi character doesn’t show up till at least two-thirds of the way, she makes her mark. Their dynamics and chemistry are engaging as well though Chastain and Kruger’s respective agents spark off one another throughout with their entertaining, but averse relationship, while Nyong’o brings the ‘heart’ to the film in her role as retired MI6 computer expert. It is however, Penélope Cruz who comes close to stealing the show as Colombian psychologist Graciela, as she brings the much needed fun into the film with a character very much out of her depth in the espionage and action department. And lastly, the character of Marie – with Diane Kruger just bringing the bad-assery with her here every step of the way. She’s the character you love to hate, and then love again.

Again, while entertaining at times, and the bad-assery is quite on par, and ‘Girl Power’ definitely reigns supreme here, unfortunately the end result is a rather mish-mash affair that, while not really ever dull, never really feels all that fully exciting either.

Grade: C-

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Review Screener: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

“THE 355” is out in theaters Friday, January 7, 2022

REVIEW: “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) 20th Century Fox

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CHOO CHOO!! ALL ABOARD..ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS! Murder! Mayham! Suspense!

Yes..If you’ve read Dame Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” or have seen the 1974 version you know the storyline. If not, or like me, couldn’t remember all of it – what’s left to deal with then, is how well this one is done and of course the big ‘whodunnit’ reveal at the end.

The story of master detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) who is hoping for a break after numerous years of solving cases, jumps onboard The Orient Express thanks to friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) who was able to secure him this spot. While onboard, Poirot ends up having to solve a murder committed while traveling with 12 other passengers on The Orient Ecpress – a train that made traveling in style from West-East axis and back again, very popular.

Director and lead actor Branagh takes on the popular story, with a nod to nostalgia in three ways. First, the flair of the train travel at that time, which was associated with adventure, pleasure and discovery, must be brought back to life. Second, the charm of the detective-witty inquiry that the character is closely linked to that era. And thirdly, a remake must also pay homage to the original film and the book itself, because Agatha Christie stories are still hugely popular and it’s 1974 version brought much critical and acting acclaim. Thus, Branagh with his well-known cast, recognizes this and with a good but alas not perfect effort, tries to retain that feel. Its highlights include dazzling production design, period costumes and of course I would be remiss to not mention the highly distracting signature moustache! The opening portion of the train journey is spent as you would expect – introducing us the characters on the train. But it’s the last 30 minutes of the film where the detective really gets into why each character is there and what part they play in the film which make that the most interesting part of the film.

Branagh as Poirot, does a fine job mixing in the brilliant detective with the comedic, witty sarcasm the character is known for. It’s always a kick to see Dame Judi Dench, here as Russian Princess Dragomiroff, and the wonderful Olivia Coleman (one of my personal favourites) as her besieged maid, Hildegarde Schmidt. But they have literally nothing to do and are almost shamefully underused. Leslie Odom, Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot is the racial switch in the casting – as Sean Connery had the role in the 1974 film – shows welcome daring for a remake that plays things stodgily by the book.
Michelle Pfeiffer shines in perhaps the meatiest – certainly the cheekiest – role as Caroline Hubbard, but those such as Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham shows that even her secret relationship with another passenger can’t give Ridley’s character enough boost to make it stand out as much as Pfeiffer does with her role – though both of these characters have a bigger chunk of the many supporting roles. Derek Jacobi as Edward Masterman & Willem Dafoe as ‘Austrian scientist’ Gerhard Hardman, both have secrets but can’t help but appear simply there for the ride. There’s a decent dramatic turn from Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, though it might be because you only know his work as a comedian so his drama performance get a tick of notice. Also underused are Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin as Count & Countess Andrenyi who have a brilliant scene with Branagh but never really do anything else. Johnny Depp plays that typical smarmy-charmy type crook here which completely works for his character Edward Ratchett. Penelope Cruz on the other hand, has it worse as the religious introvert Pilar Estravados. It hard as I always find her work to be sub-par in English movies as she excels so well in the Spanish ones, I end up feeling a bit of a let down by them and here she is barely a blip on the Orient Express. So for all the resplendence of this cast, it’s hard not to feel that Branagh isn’t really pushing any of them to work.

Conclusion: Branagh’s staging of this famous crime thriller tries to do justice to the charm and the time-frame of the original with visual charms, a well-known cast and a little humor. However, this succeeds less convincingly than hoped.

Grade: C+
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