The 355

This is exactly the kind of film that opens in January. There is a premise that is easy to grasp, there is plenty of action to try to keep you interested, and the characters are bland enough that you can be okay if they make it or they don’t. This is as disposable an action film as you are likely to come across this year. Liam Neeson and Jason Statham have this territory to themselves usually, but there is a reason that their movies succeed where this one merely exists, charisma. Jessica Chastain is a fine actress and she has been in some excellent films, but she doers not have the persona here to make the movie memorable.

I love the idea of female spies coming together to form a team of badass women to save the world. The problem is that the characters have very little personality and the plot is action driven rather than character driven. Diane Kruger is the one agent who comes closest to having a personality that is not simply a stereotype. Lupita Nyong’o is mostly defined by her costume and the technical skills she has, rather than something about her that would draw us in. Penélope Cruz is playing a part that makes no sense from a story perspective and it saddles her with the responsibility of being the obligatory damsel in distress. Bingbing fan is the most conventional character and she only shows up in the last quarter of the film. Sebastian Stan glowers through his sections of the film, and should have been a stronger presence for Chastain to play against.

Basically this is a movie composed of a series of chases, fistfights and gun battles that all go on far too long. Everything is competently done but nothing feels special about any of it. There is more running in high heels than any movie I can think of, ever, and it is noticeable that this handicap does not seem to effect anyone in any way. Chastain has a training sequence where her fighting bon a fides are established, but she seems to just miss an awful lot in some of the early fights, making us wonder if she really is as good as she is supposed to be. The fight she has in a cloakroom for five minutes while the “heist” elements of their plan plays out makes no sense at all, it seems to simply be there so she can show off those skills in an evening dress.

The McGuffin in the story is a piece of technology that slips from one set of hands to another. It is set up as impossible to replicate or alter. The obvious question becomes how is that possible, and no answer really makes sense. The second question is if it is so dangerous, why not destroy it the first chance you get? Again, that would just have shortened the movie. Her is a third question, why not buy it in the auction, like all the bad actors in the world are trying to do? Again, the answer is that we would not have a movie is you did that. Plotting is not deep at all here, every double cross is not really a surprise, every character will be given a moment to shine.

Plenty of spy films have featured effective women characters that are interesting and sometimes the leads in the film. The idea of this movie seems to be to exclude any men from participating in the team work and pander to a specific audience. What ended up happening is that bland characters become even less interesting when surrounded by other bland characters and a lifeless plot. The action scenes are fine but not especially interesting, and the result is a film that I doubt anyone will remember by February. 

It Chapter Two

Two years ago, the trailer for “It” built enough anticipation to make a slightly above average horror film, into a monster hit. That original trailer showed us next to nothing, other than the scene that introduces us to Pennywise the clown, in the gutter, tempting little Georgie. When the rest of the film showed up, it could not live up to that terrifying and suspenseful three minutes. They certainly tried with some clever effects and good performances from the young cast. Fans of the book knew there was more coming and naturally Chapter Two was a forgone conclusion.

The pattern repeats itself here. The first film gives us the promise of something special, and we waited two years for it. What we got was pretty average and not nearly as scary as that original trailer for the first film. The trailers for this movie also gave away too many of the creepy moments that would work better as a surprise.

I will say that the opening of the film works very well. A brutal confrontation with small town bigots actually makes us wish for Pennywise to show up and dispatch these a**holes as soon as possible, but first we are reminded about how evil the clown is, and that his return under any circumstances would not be desirable. After a few chilling images that suggest things have started up again, we get a basic quest film story. First the heroes must gather, most reluctantly. Then each of them has to complete a quest individually, in order to proceed to battle, and then finally they all have to come together and work as a team. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.

Probably because the book was so dense, there is some exposition that has to be rushed. It sure seems awkward when one character basically roofies another with psychedelic activated natural juices to get him to share his visions. It was also unclear why, after all the losers have gathered and been subjected to a psychic attack from Pennywise, that they still need to be convinced. The idea that their memories have faded after leaving town is an interesting one but not very well explored. Since the film ends up being the better part of three hours anyway, maybe trim the bloated visual effects at the end, and build and solve this mystery at the beginning.

The individual quests are reasonably entertaining, but there is an element of repetitiveness to them. After the first jump scare with a truly disturbing visual effect, the subsequent experience are a series of diminishing returns that rob the story of any drive and frequently take us down a path of confusion that is never really developed or needed. Jessica Chastain as the grown version ofthe lone girl in the first film is fine.  Bev’s trip down memory lane was the standout in this set of moments, but it was also the one that was featured in the original teaser trailer so that the only surprize is the last minute creature effect that gives us a jump scare. Maybe I’m a little jaded having watched two other horror films the day before, but I had none of the anticipation of dread that filled the first film.

There is a running joke about how Bill played by James McAvoy, as a grown man who is now an author of thrillers, is not very good at creating endings for his story. We get that joke at least three times, including a delivery of the punchline by the actual author of this story. I suppose the point of this was to prepare us for the let down of an ending we get here. The best moments of emotional satisfaction in the relationships between the characters, get drowned out by an overblown CGI sequence which features the cast chanting a message that feels pretty hollow. It also goes on, and on. Some many things that had to be condensed, were reduced to give us more of this, the least interesting and frightening part of the film. The coda has some nice moments, Bill Hader steals most of the movie and there is a clever bookend that ties in to the introduction, but the voice over material is overwrought and goes on far too long as well.

“It Chapter Two” is a disappointment from a horror perspective but it is visually inventive and there are a few jump scares that will probably satisfy fans. I really wanted to like it better. Unfortunately, that was true of the original film as well. The adult casting of the kids from the original is solid. Those kids are also back in a series of flashback points that elaborate on the end of the first film and fill in some narrative spots for this story.