The 355 Three stars In cinemas; Cert 15A
If the prospect of facing into yet another new year laced with uncertainty is proving to be a struggle, a booster of a different kind may be at hand.
What better way to summon up the spirit of overcoming odds and coming out on top than the sight of five of the most lauded and beautiful female actors in the world pummelling nasty terrorist goons into submission?
This is what we get with The 355, a star-studded espionage romp that delivers a high-kicking, sharp-shooting, jet-setting, and impeccably turned-out fight against the forces of overwhelming global demise.
Before you say “sign us up immediately”, it should be noted this is a spy thriller that sits somewhere between the dour precision of Bourne and Bond at his most improbably camp.
Delayed a year by the pandemic, the biggest attraction in writer-director Simon Kinberg’s film is the brilliant wattage of the cast – Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, and Chinese megastar Fan Bingbing – no doubt assembled through the Rolodex of co-producer Chastain.
Any eye-rolls or plot holes are arguably forgiveable on the basis this is a mini event in action cinema at a time of the year when the world can seem bereft of anything in any way carnivalesque.
Yes, our heroes punch the lights out of men three times their weight, and yes, they duly dust themselves off and leap to the next enigmatic international destination in their heist.
There are so many switched allegiances and convenient twists that you start to feel dizzy. But in the first week of January, with an ensemble of that calibre, one is disinclined to call such things impediments.
In a lavish Colombian hacienda of the kind beloved by cartel leaders, a deal is going down. A top-secret computer weapon has been developed with the power to close down the electrical systems of everything from passenger jets to financial markets.
The deal is rumbled by Colombian military ops, thus preventing a potential weapon of mass destruction falling into terrorist hands. The phone-sized object goes missing in the skirmish and departs the country in the possession of Edgar Ramirez’s conflicted mercenary.
The CIA are on to this and assign Mace (Chastain) and partner Nick (Sebastian Stan) to intercept the package in Paris. What they don’t see coming is German intelligence have also set their sights on trying to save humanity and have dispatched their own lethal weapon in the form of Marie (Kruger).
Mace brings in London tech specialist Khadijah (Nyong’o) to help track and trace the device’s movements.
Making things even more complicated is the arrival to Paris of a Colombian state intelligence psychologist named Graciela (Cruz), who has been tasked with bringing Ramirez’s character in from the cold.
All these elements converge in a barrage of fisticuffs and chases, but while the rival agents bicker, the real villains swoop in to show they mean business. If they are going to save the world and put the deadly weapon out of commission once and for all, the four women will have to trust one another and join forces.
The considerable international lady-power on display gets one final layer of icing in the form of a dangerous shadow operative encountered in Shanghai (Fan), whose motives are unclear at first.
Chastain and Kruger spark well off one another, while Nyong’o provides some much-needed lightness, especially in a film that has a fairly high bodycount for a 12A rating.
Also to be appreciated is the shard of depth found in Cruz’s character, who, unlike the others, is a loving mother with no combat training. It’s a detail apparently suggested to Kinberg by Cruz, who had no interest in playing a tough-talking Latina.
Kinberg, the screenwriter-turned-producer behind Mr & Mrs Smith, The Martian, and various X-Men instalments, co-wrote a script with Theresa Rebeck that is heavy on tropes but goes all out to capitalise on its cast. While often ridiculous, you couldn’t always call it predictable.
A bigger problem is that some of the action scenes fail to ignite, and there mightn’t be many awards forthcoming for dialogue.
But if you can sit back and not overthink things too much, The 355 makes a decent fist at filtering teak-tough spy games through an unashamedly glamorous, patriarchy-busting prism.
IFI; Cert 15A
A chaotic family dinner takes centre stage in Stephen Karam’s accomplished – and occasionally haunting – adaptation of his Tony Award-winning play.
It’s Thanksgiving in New York, and the Blake family has convened for booze and grub at daughter Brigid’s (Beanie Feldstein) crummy Chinatown apartment, which she shares with boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). The building is in an awful state. There is mould on the walls, the neighbours are a pain, and the puzzling layout would give you nightmares. Dad Erik (Richard Jenkins) and mum Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) are far from impressed.
Meanwhile, sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) is struggling with a break-up, a job loss and a crushing medical diagnosis, and grandmother Momo (June Squibb) has dementia. Some are hiding things from others, and everyone is on edge. You had better believe that things get awkward.
Karam makes fine use of a tense, claustrophobic setting to create visual splendour. The Humans is a fabulous looking film, and a beautifully performed one, too, packing its dysfunctional set-up with unsettling wit and searing, psychological drama. A note-perfect ensemble piece.
In cinemas; Cert 12A
I must admit I knew little about the ground-breaking American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey before watching Jamila Wignot’s amiable, well-intentioned documentary.
And I still had some questions long after the credits rolled.
Equal parts noble profile and handsome eulogy, Wignot’s film explores the life of a man who gave his life to dance. His most famous piece, Revelations, is one of the most celebrated works in contemporary ballet, and – through the foundation of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre – Ailey created a space for black artists to convey the African American experience through movement and modern dance.
Ailey, meanwhile, struggled with loneliness – and Wignot’s film explores his sexuality, personal hardships and his death from an Aids-related illness in 1989.
Combining grainy archive footage and never-before-heard audio interviews with warm testimonials and breath-taking rehearsal and performance pieces, Ailey utilises every available tool in its box.
Alas, it’s a little too vague and unfocused, struggling at times to tell the story of an influential man – who by all accounts preferred to keep himself to himself.
In cinemas/On demand; Cert 15A
It’s the last Friday before Christmas, the formidable Stephen Graham is Andy Jones, head chef at a swanky London restaurant – and he is about to experience the most stressful night of his career.
Andy is in a rough spot. He’s keeping secrets from everyone. When a health and safety inspector shows up, our man loses his head at staff. They are all exhausted, tense, ready for a break. But the customers are coming in thick and fast.
One of them is proposing to his girlfriend. Another is abusive toward a waitress. There are obnoxious influencers in the house, and the most important guest is an old friend of Andy’s. It’s all kicking off, then – and we haven’t yet touched on the important bit.
You see, Philip Barantini and James Cummings’ beguiling, high-wire drama was filmed in a single take. Never before has a picture gone to such extraordinary lengths to convey the anxieties of restaurant work, and the attention to detail is phenomenal.
Barantini’s dizzying one-shot drama, however, is so much more than a gimmick. It is a towering achievement in performance and direction, and Graham is remarkable in the lead. Sensational stuff. Chris Wasser