“Red Sparrow” film review

Intense. Riveting. Spine-tingling, A masterful spy thriller crafted in a classical fashion with sex appeal. Red Sparrow will harness your full attention from the opening. Directed by Francis Lawrence, this spy movie is the level of excitement that 2015’s Bridge of Spies wished it was. Whereas many espionage movies fail to develop a plot that keeps you guessing from beginning to end–allowing you to feel like a covert operative or detective–this film delivers a mesmerizing story filled with intriguing characters and close calls. In many ways, this film contains elements that could be likened to a Hitchcockian suspense thriller with influences from Billy Wilder and David Fincher. Jennifer Lawrence displays an uncanny performance that truly shows the versatility of the Oscar-winning actress. With tensions rising between the US and Russia in real life, this films comes at a perfect time because we may find ourselves in a cold war that’s reminiscent of the latter part of the 20th century. Not for those who are weak in the stomach, this film contains cringy visceral horror that will get under your skin. Without the need to rely on science-fiction gadgetry to carry the story, this film provides well-developed characters and an intriguing plot that’s filled with twists and turns.

Prima Bolshoi Ballet ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is faced with a bleak and uncertain future following a severe career-ending injury while on stage performing. Her high-ranking uncle persuades her to attend Sparrow School: an institution that trains seductive spies in order to pry information from targets by using extreme sensuality. Sparrows turn their minds and bodies into weapons for the state. Being determined to remain special, Dominika completes the sadistic training more quickly than the other students and is recruited for a covert assignment to track and report on an American CIA operative (Joel Edgerton) who Russia feels will lead them to the mole within their own ranks.

The beautiful opening of Red Sparrow is abruptly ended when Dominika suffers a horrific injury that instantly ends her ballet career. This acutely intense moment will cut you directly to the bone–you will undoubtedly wince or cringe, feel the break in your own legs. This is but a taste of what is to come throughout the movie. In an exquisite fashion, the gorgeous dance at the opening is juxtaposed against the alleged drug deal gone bad. Paralleling one another, the event that unfolds concurrently enable the plot to get a quickly paced fantastic start out the gate. Unfortunately, this excellent start does lead into a slower paced latter half of Act I. However, there is important background information that is revealed during Act I that foreshadows and sets up the remainder of the turning points in the plot. You will also notice the use of the color red in many places during the movie. Analyzing the shades of, and placement of the crimson hue has the potential to generate conversations between cinephiles.

The color red is not the only symbol in the movie that can be analyzed; there is a theme of your body belonging to the state. Essentially, this can be read as a commentary on celebrity. As a prima ballerina, Dominika’s body was weaponized for the stage and figuratively belonged to the Bolshoi and by extension to the public. Much in the same way her Sparrow weaponized body literally belongs to The State. It’s her body, but the Bolshoi and The State determine her career. But she is determined to not allow herself to become a commodity that can be abandoned, traded, or punished. This can be said about conventional celebrities and the public. In a manner of speaking, the public decides whether or not you are worth seeing on screen and how you should behave. Back during the days of the Studio System, this was a big problem because the Studio controlled your image, who you dated, slept with, when/if you had kids, your marriage, and more. There was mass exploitation in that system, and one of the reasons why it was ended. The empowering message of rebelling against The State, who is determined to own you and your body, can be witnessed through the covert actions of Dominika.

In the grand Hitchcockian fashion, there is a lot of suspense that increases tension but does not always provide a release. Though Hitch would have handled the level and pacing of the suspense more perfectly, you can read his famous bomb theory in Red Sparrow. Hitchcock knew how to take a two-dimensional situation and find a third-dimensional approach to impress the audiences and hold firm their attention. And to the film’s credit, there are a few times that the level of suspense coupled with the symphonic score channels Hitch. Unlike many spy movies that rely too heavily on a love story, the film brilliantly leaves you wondering whether or not Lawrence and Edgerton are in love or rather it is a facade employed in order to extract vital information for their respective allegiances. The level of romance and eroticism is just enough to add the sex-appeal to the relationship without the movie becoming about the romance between two individuals who serve two opposing countries.

Not for the faint of heart, there are some incredibly intense moments in the film that might make you queasy in the stomach. But the movie chooses to place more emphasis on the action, plot, and characters more so than that which threatens your eye. It’s certainly a new breed of spy movie, but it’s one that is incredibly interesting and will hold your attention for the more than 2hr runtime.

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“Kingsman: the Golden Circle” movie review

Rough start, but a smooth finish. The highly anticipated sequel to Kingsman: the Secret Service releases this week, and you are in for a fun time! Unfortunately, not as great a time as you had with the first one. Looks like this franchise fell victim to the same condition that plagues so many franchises’ sequels. One of the experiential elements that made the first one so great is the constant reminder that “this isn’t one of those movies.” The original was self-aware and full of excellent writing. Though this sequel contains the similar action and comedy, the novelty, that was the first, is lost with Golden Circle. A struggle of many sequels is opening with sufficient connections to the original but not in such a way that it feels like the same plot. Although the movie finishes satisfyingly well, the first scene felt too much like a cliche action movie–too animated feeling. However, it finds its way back to the soul of the original soon enough. Perhaps this installment plays out differently because it no longer feels new and different. While the writing may not be as on point as the previous film, the cast is still fantastic and there is one reoccurring cameo in particular that will catch you pleasantly by surprise.

After an explosive car chase through the streets of London, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) witnesses he destruction of his apartment, close colleagues, and discovers the headquarters of The Kingsman completely wiped off the planet. With nothing left to do except follow the mysterious doomsday protocol, Eggsy finds his way to a counterpart operations in the United States known as Statesman. Meanwhile, much of the world finds itself hostage in the grasp of Poppy (Julianne Moore), a peppy beautiful drug lord operating out of a remote jungle location. Poppy has poisoned illegal drugs with a compound that brings about certain death if left untreated. In exchange for the antidote, she is forcing the US President to declassify all drugs in order to tax them like a normal legit business. Once connected with the elite team of Statesman, both agents must form a partnership to take down Poppy and save the world from mass genocide.

Although this is a fun movie–no mistaking that–it contains far too many gimmicks than solid writing. The strength in the first one was two fold: (1) the writing and (2) the cast. Given that Golden Circle contains many of the same cast members, the fault has to then be in the writing. So much of the comedy and character dynamics felt forced and less organic than the original. This film serves as evidence than even an all-star powerhouse cast and talented director cannot save a film built upon sloppy writing. The Secret Service wowed audiences with a movie that transcended all other James Bond spoofs to create a world of its own–that’s it–it felt unique in a world filled with conventional and parodied espionage movies. Character wise, Eggsy is no longer the protagonist in a My Fair Lady meets James Bond but just another flat would-be action hero. Julianna Moore’s Poppy is more interesting because she is a cross between a deranged 1950s housewife meets Martha Stewart meets drug cartel kingpin. Though the trailers contain a lot of Tatum, his character goes by the wayside at the end of Act I. Halle Berry is a solid choice for her counterpart to Strong’s Merlin.

By in large, the plot is just too silly and lacks innovation. Even the cameo by a well-known and talented vocal artist feels like an excuse to dust off the most flamboyant costumes. The plot is certainly not helped by the heavy-handed CGI effects throughout the film, and it’s so incredibly concentrated in the beginning that it feels like an animated film. That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to enjoy Kingsman: the Golden Circle. I certainly had a good time and so did my friend who accompanied me to the advanced screening in Tampa. Some of the enjoyable parts of the film are the high profile cameo, seeing A-list actors just have fun portraying outrageous characters, and the humorous one-liners delivered tongue in cheek. Although the opening scene is over the top, it does quickly connect the beginning of this film with the end of the previous one. Had this film taken itself more seriously as a spy movie that happened to also be funny, then I think it would have be more appreciated by the audience. Despite the rough opening, the film does manage to come in for a smooth finish and leads into another installment.

If you’re looking for 2015’s Kingsman, then you may be disappointed. If you’re looking for a fun spy movie spoof, then you’ll likely enjoy The Golden Circle for the most part.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Allied” movie review

alliedQuite the duplicitous plot! Robert Zemeckis’ Allied released by Paramount Pictures is a thrilling tale of espionage and love. We have certainly seen a few different “spy” movies over the last couple of years; some more about espionage and others more about the drama that ensues afterwards. Fortunately, Allied feels like a genuine spy movie that actually contains espionage. The production design and costumes are a beautiful throwback to the fabulous 40s. You’ll find yourself reaching for a glass of champagne and swing dancing to Benny Goodman’s timeless big band jazz hit Sing, Sing, Sing. There is one city synonymous with WWII, espionage, and romance and you will appropriately return to that iconic city of Casablanca in Allied. This is definitely not a reimagined Casablanca but there are indirect references to that movie sprinkled throughout this new story. Films like this one require top notch talent, and both Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard deliver outstanding performances to accompany this staple in film genres. Not limited to the love story between Pitt’s and Cotillard’s respective characters, the movie also includes some deadly shootout scenes and dangerously close encounters with the Nazis behind enemy lines.

Commander and intelligence officer Max Vatan (Pitt) is stationed in the famous city of Casablanca in French Morocco where he teams up with French resistance movement leader Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard). Impressed by her ability to so effectively blend in and create her authentic cover, Vatan soon finds himself falling in love with his partner. Following the assassination of a Nazi ambassador, Beausejour and Vatan flee to London to start their life together. Everything is going beautifully for the happy couple in their second year of marriage with a child when Vatan’s superiors confront him with the suspicion that Marianne is in fact a Nazi spy. Refusing to believe it to be true, Max must now conduct his own investigation into his wife’s history to protect the ones he loves so dearly.

I absolutely adored the look and feel of the film as it echoes the era of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although this movie plays off a tad listless as a result of failing to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience, it is not without it outstanding elements. It benefits from solid acting and beautiful cinematography as well as some fantastic symbolism. Robert Zemeckis’ talent for visual storytelling is clearly visible in this period film. The weakness in the ability to successfully leave a lasting emotional impact on the audience is in the writing and executive producership of Steven Knight (Eastern Promises). For films that are not as much about the spectacle as they are the drama between characters and the challenges faced therein, it is vitally important that the personal/interpersonal relationships transcend the screen and directly impact the audience. All the makings were there for a deeply moving cinematic story, but it just doesn’t quite make that transition from the mostly superficial and distant.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall…(interesting fun fact: this misquoted line from Snow White is actually “magic mirror on the wall”). But, I digress. The strategic use of mirrors is an  incredible use of visual storytelling and symbolism. For those who have studied film or literary rhetoric, the mirror is a classic means of conveying duplicity (two sides, faces, etc of a character). Even without knowing that this was a spy movie, I would have been able to infer that from how the mirrors are shot and placed within the composition of the 24 frames a second. When using powerful symbolism as part of the visual story, it conveys so much more meaning in a scene than words could actually describe. Mirrors have long sense been a powerful metaphor even before moving pictures. But motion pictures allow for a greater use of the importance it plays in a cinematic story. Not limited to duplicity, mirrors can also be used as a metaphor for self-reflection. Whether talking duplicity or reflection, the mirror aids in conveying so much to the audience in this movie.

Ordinarily, I am not a fan of classic films getting remakes; however, there are always exceptions when the core or essence of the film is held in tact but the production design, direction, and cinematography are brought up to speed with contemporary cinema. If you’re a fan of WWII era films or the timelsss spy movie, then you will definitely enjoy Allied. After witnessing the significance of Casablanca in this movie, I am actually looking forward to a remake if there ever is one. Provided. That the overall look and feel of the movie is in line with classical motion picture storytelling. I could definitely see Robert Zemeckis directing a remake of Casablanca. Occasionally there are directors who can strike the balance between a classic tale told through contemporary technology, and Zemeckis definitely struck that balance in Allied.

Don’t allow the weak writing to dissuade you from watching it; there is actually a lot to enjoy in this film. After the slow burn during the first act, acts II and III are full of intrigue and suspense.

“Snowden” movie review

snowdenA political docudrama that only Stone could pull off so effectively! Once again, acclaimed director Oliver Stone brings another socio-political issue and figure to the screen. Whether you’re of the school of thought that Edward Snowden should be charged with espionage or heralded as a hero, this film will definitely challenge your point of view. But, isn’t that what Stone is known for??? More than a docudrama of the life of Snowden, Stone’s film is a dramatization of the state of government surveillance. One could argue that surveillance is the star of the film, not Snowden. The intent of the film is not to cast blame on either Snowden or the U.S. Government, but to cast doubt. The simple placement of doubt can be far more powerful than blatantly passing judgment or blame. If there was any ‘doubt’ that Stone is one of the most important filmmakers covering modern historic events, then this film will cast aside any remaining doubt. Few directors, have been so successful in taking cold, hard facts and transforming them into a story fit for cinema. The success of this film is attributed to the incredible lead talent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley have excellent chemistry on screen. Accompanied by a strong cast of supporting players such as Zachary Quinto, Nicholas Cage, Scott Eastwood, Tom Wilkinson, and Melissa Leo, this film’s cast will have your attention until the final fade to black.

Oliver Stone’s Snowden takes you on a journey through the significant events of Snowden’s life from 2006 to 2013 when he was finally granted temporary asylum in Russia. The reason why his name is so famous or infamous–that depends on which school of thought you are from–is not new and even blasé at this point; but, the events of his professional and personal life that culminated in the leak and disclosure of NSA (National Security Administration) surveillance secrets and programs are not as widely known. Disillusioned with his career as a highly sought after top digital media and intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) begins to wrestle with being able to justify and reconcile the rampant surveillance data that the NSA is collecting and how it affects both private citizens as well as those who are being hunted for crimes against humanity and the U.S. After deciding that it was best to go public with the information, he is then on the run of his life. A traitor to some and a hero to others, this film will prompt you to perhaps rethink the actions of Snowden.

Although this film has slow pacing, for those who are interested in the life of the–to borrow from J. Jonah Jameson–hero or menace, Stone’s docudrama will successfully hook you and draw you into this world of intelligenceSnowden is a particularly interesting docudrama because this film essentially contains three smaller movies–a three legged stool if you will. There is the most dominant story of Snowden discovering the copious amount of secret government surveillance data being collected by his software. Next, we have the personal romantic story of the ups and downs of his relationship with the liberal, artistic, amateur photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and how his professional life gently affected their relationship. And finally, the story that made Snowden a household name: his leaking and dissemination of top secret NSA surveillance methods and everything else Snowden knew about questionable NSA methods of collection. For most people, that third story is all anyone knows. But, in order to truly get an idea of the pressure Snowden must have been feeling, it is imprint to take the other two stories into account. That is precisely what Stone did with this film. Stone’s version of the life and times of Snowden takes the other Snowden film Citizen Four a step further to truly be able to analyze all the known elements.

There are many excellent qualities in the writing and visual storytelling in this film, but there are two areas that appear to falter or suffer in the translation of these now historic events. The focus of the movie is definitely on what led Snowden to leak the NSA secrets, but there is a significant amount of time spent on the relationship between Snowden and Mills. One could argue that the strain of his relationship with Mills contributed to his eventual disclosure of the NSA secrets. Cinematically speaking, the strategic placement of the personal life of Snowden is important because the audience needs a break from the flat panel displays, computer code, and “geek-speak.” Unfortunately, Stone and his co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald did not carefully contract and craft the personal dialog as well as they did the info tech and military dialog. In many ways, the forced personal story of the relationship between Snowden and Mills comes off as a forced element from producers to make the film more relatable to those who are not AS interested in the military side of the story and more interested in the outside/personal influences that affected Snowden’s actions. It’s not unlike fans wanting to know the personal details of a celebrity’s life. Unfortunately, this human interest subplot does not play out as well as the two dominant stories at the forefront of this film. That being said, both Gordon-Levitt and Woodley are extremely committed to the characters/historic figures they are portraying. I cannot think of two other actors who could have been better suited to play these roles. Gordon-Levitt nailed Snowden’s voice, body language, and nuances.

The other area of this film that appears to suffer is the structure–the map, if you will. Any first year film student can tell you that flashback movies can be dangerous. Often times, the flashback is used as a copout plot device that simply plays off as lazy writing. From a technical perspective, a movie that uses the flashback as a means to tell the story is referred to as a nonlinear film. Now, I am not stating that Stone’s movie is lazily written and structured; however, I do not feel that the constant back and forth between the past and then-present were handled delicately or strategically enough. Most of the time, one of the comments I have about movies that rely upon the flashback as a plot device to tell the story is ‘Why is there a need for a flashback? Just let the main story BE the main story.’ The flashback concept works for some films like The NotebookFried Green Tomatoes, or IT; but it does not work for others such as Ladder 49 or The Weight of Water. Most of the time, a flashback is used out of convenience to fill runtime; meanwhile, the audience usually doesn’t care about the past as much as what is going to happen next in the present. Stone and Fitzgerald are mostly successful as keeping the audience entertained, caring about, and longing for what happens next in BOTH the past and present; however, I found the movie to go between both the present and past too much, almost to the point that it was a little confusing. Opening with Snowden and the small group of journalists was a great way to begin, but I feel that the story of Snowden would have been a little more gripping if we were able to watch the events from 2006 to 2013 unfold without present-day interruptions. Still, the ending that was selected for the film was both effective and strategic.

Oliver Stone’s Snowden is not a film for everyone. For those who enjoy socio-political movies or docudramas of historic figures, then you will likely enjoy it! If you are looking for an action-packed spy thriller, then is this not for you. Unlike some movies that truly ARE better experienced on the big screen, this is one that is equally experienced as well on the big or small screen.