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Movie Reviews: New Releases for Jan. 7

The 355, A Hero, Drive My Car, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and more


Penelope Cruz, Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o and Diane Kruger in The 355 - UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Universal Pictures
  • Penelope Cruz, Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o and Diane Kruger in The 355
The 355 **1/2
The title—a reference to a never-identified Revolutionary War-era female spy—may be meant to honor all the women in the history of espionage, but the movie itself feels more like a tribute to the power of the MacGuffin. When a powerful cyber-“master key” with the ability to get into any computer system goes missing, a multi-national group of veteran covert operatives—CIA agent Mace (Jessica Chastain), MI6 tech whiz Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), German agent Marie (Diane Kruger) and more—join forces along with a reluctantly-participating Colombian government psychologist (Penélope Cruz)  to help save the world. The script (co-credited to Theresa Rebeck and director Simon Kinberg) tries really hard to inject a layer of emotional consequence as all of these women try to balance their dangerous missions and their personal lives, with a specific reference to how they have it harder than James Bond; they bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, then throw the bacon grease in a bad guy’s face and use the pan to beat him unconscious. But at its core this is a functional action thriller, with Kinberg offering a few effective action beats—the best one involving an extended pursuit through a French fish market—driven by a nearly non-stop follow-the-bouncing-ball pursuit of the crucial whoziwhatsit. While Kruger makes the strongest impression, playing her loner character with an almost feral intensity, The 355 can’t quite convince me that it’s more interested in these people than the location at any given time of the thingamajig. Available Jan. 7 in theaters. (PG-13)

Drive My Car ****

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story does the counter-intuitive thing, expanding the text into a rich and multi-layered three-hour exploration of grief, guilt and how we process emotions through art. The extended prologue begins with the relationship between a married couple, actor/director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and writer Oto (Reika Kirishima), complicated by Yûsuke’s awareness of Oto’s extramarital affairs. Two years after Oto’s unexpected death, Yûsuke travels to Hiroshima to direct a multi-lingual adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, where his contract requires him to be driven by a professional chauffeur, Misaki (Tôko Miura). Hamaguchi digs deep into the relationships between his characters, providing almost uncomfortable moments of both revelation and withholding information through long, patiently-held takes. And he allows them to be both sympathetic and petty, as Yûsuke uses his authority as director to make things difficult for one particular member of his cast. Everything pulls together through the concept guiding the Vanya production, which includes actors speaking (and signing) multiple languages. It’s a powerful notion, especially for those who are often intimidated by non-English language films: The most powerful forms of communication are things you sometimes feel more than you understand. Available Jan. 7 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

A Hero ****
See feature review. Available Jan. 7 at Broadway Centre Cinemas; Jan. 21 via Amazon Prime. (PG)

See for Me **1/2
There are enough potentially intriguing variations in this spin on Wait Until Dark that it’s inevitably disappointing when most of them don’t quite pay off. Sophie Scott (Skyler Davenport), a promising competitive skier before losing her sight, takes a gig as a cat-sitter in an isolated McMansion, only to find the job disturbed by a group of thieves. Among the twists is Sophie’s dependence on a phone app that turns military veteran Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) into her eyes, but a hinted-at subplot about Kelly needing redemption for some on-the-job mistake fizzles out unresolved. There’s also promising material in making Sophie a thief herself, though Davenport doesn’t quite play all the required shades to make her both sympathetic and kind of a jerk. Director Randall Okita does a nice job with establishing the tension of Sophie’s situation through a solid sense of geography, and keeps the adrenaline level high even through the moments when people are doing the stupidest possible thing. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with the simple satisfactions of a sturdy, rote thriller, except when you can see that a little more effort could have yielded something more than sturdy and rote. Available Jan. 7 in theaters and via VOD. (R)

Torn **1/2
It’s not inherently a problem that director Max Lowe is so close to the subject of his documentary; it is a problem when the result is almost entirely his personal therapy session. Max is the oldest son of Alex Lowe, the world-renowned mountain-climber who died in a 1999 avalanche in the Tibetan Himalayas, leaving his mother Jenni a widow with three children. The ample archival footage of Alex Lowe does a great job of creating him as a character, including the ever-present tension between his wanderlust and his sense of parental/spousal responsibility. The majority of the film, however, deals with what happens after his death, including the role in the Lowe family’s lives of Conrad Anker, Alex’s climbing partner and survivor of the same avalanche that killed Alex. Anker himself would have made for a fascinating central subject as he wrestles with survival guilt and his own emotional connection with Jenni. But Max only seems able to ask the most obvious questions of Conrad, Jenni and his brothers, resulting in something that’s thin when it should be complex. And while everyone here is looking for some kind of resolution, it’s clear that Max is trying to make it okay for himself to “replace” Alex with another father figure. The toughest material surrounding this material ends up shuffled aside in favor of something that offers the director a sense of closure. Available Jan. 7 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy ***1/2
It was a hell of a 2021 double-feature year for Ryusuke Hamaguchi (see Drive My Car above), who here shows a facility for exactly the kind of short-story structure he eschewed when expanding Drive My Car. Three stand-alone segments each tell stories built on bits of coincidence: a woman (Kotone Furukawa) hears her best friend (Hyunri) describe a magical night with a new man, gradually realizing the man (Ayumu Nakajimi) is her own ex-boyfriend; a married student (Katsuki Mori) agrees to participate in a “honey trap” plot for revenge against a professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa); a woman (Fusako Urabe) attends her high school reunion, and encounters a classmate (Aoba Kawai) she remembers as her first love. Structurally, each segment is masterful, finding the sharp focus of short story on a specific moment or interaction, even if the third segment’s conceit of a world stripped of digital communication by a computer virus feels underdeveloped. Mostly, they are instances of powerful connection fueled by terrific performances, which Hamaguchi captures through characters who might avoid eye contact until they’re staring directly at someone—and at the viewer. Like any omnibus collection, it might not be able to pack the final punch of a single narrative, but each piece here is its own small thing of beauty. Available Jan. 7 via (NR)