“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.

“Passengers” movie review

passengersAn intriguing journey with lots of potential but ultimately fails to pull into the space dock. The highly anticipated visually stunning science-fiction film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt proves one thing: Pratt and Lawrence have excellent on screen chemistry and play off each other very well. With films like this one, it’s hard to know where the fault lies. Typically, a film with such potential and a powerful cast is weakened by either the writing or directing. Since the director principally works with the cast, it can be concluded that the writing lacked the drive that this film needed. On a more positive note, this film depicts deep space travel how it could likely be in the not-so-distant future. From the centrifugal force created by the rotating space craft to simulate how artificial gravity could be generated to the onboard technology to the sickbay, this film does a fantastic job of providing audiences with a science-fiction that is almost tangible. Having such a limited cast in one location can spell disaster for cinematic storytelling; but, the film is quite interesting to watch and sufficiently keeps the audience’s attention. Furthermore, the audience mostly connects with Aurora (Lawrence) and Jim (Pratt) well enough. But, the film fails to truly provide audiences with a new adventure because it amounts to a glorified Castaway set in the Disney Springs of shopping malls in outer space–just completely empty of scooters, strollers, and other park guests. Lack of surprise pretty well sums it up.

Welcome aboard The Avalon on the Homestead Company’s routine transport to Homestead II, a new earth colony. All is going well until two passengers find themselves awakened from suspended animation about 90 years too early during a cascade of ship wide malfunctions. Faced with living the rest of their respective lives on board and only the company of an AI bartender (Michael Sheen), Jim and Aurora must cope with the challenges of living together in a world that is merely 1000 meters from stem to stern. When the ship begins to increasingly malfunction and life support at risk, Jim and Aurora much solve the mystery of what originally caused the problem that began the cascade. Just as the ship is keeping a secret, there are other dark secrets on board the ship as well. Meeting with psychological, emotional, and engineering challenges, Jim and Aurora have 5000 other passengers and crew to save while maintaining their own sanity and psycho-social health.

As the movie faded to black, I began discussing it with the friends who accompanied me to the cinema last night. And we shared a mutual reaction of hmm, not exactly sure what this was or how to read it but it had some interesting components. And that pretty well covers it. The film will likely keep you entertained but with few surprises, it lacks anything to make it memorable in a positive way. Forgettable is what this movie will become in the no-so-distant future. Essentially, Passengers is what you would get if Gravity and Titanic were to have a baby. Star-crossed lovers on a ship that is self-destructing in the vacuum of space. One of the most intriguing components in the plot of the film is also highly disturbing. While love and infatuation causes many to go to great lengths in order to see desire become reality, it is a double-edged sword that can cause one to behave selfishly if not displaying signs of sociopathy. While Pratt’s performance is what is to be expected from one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood who is equally a dedicated family man, his performance is never quite on par with his Castaway counterpart. However, Lawrence delivers an intense performance as she plays off Pratt,the bartender, and The Avalon itself.

The cinematography and editing are excellent. In fact, the technical elements of the film are impressive! Not quite as groundbreaking as Gravity or Interstellar but still outstanding. There is one scene in particular that still has me puzzled as to how it was able to be achieved so flawlessly. The set design, albeit spartan, is beautifully sleek and functional. As film is a visually driven medium of storytelling, the camera often pulls in close to characters to establish intimacy but juxtaposes that against pulling back to reveal the oppressive loneliness of being alone on a massive ship in space. For a brief moment, I experienced the dread that is created in Kubrick’s The Shining when Jim meets Arthur the bartender. Interestingly, the music (composed by Thomas Newman), camera direction, dialog, blocking, an set design all work together seamlessly to establish that unparalleled sense of dread, loneliness, and self-destructive despair that are so iconic to The Shining. Unfortunately, that powerful sense of dread is lost in weak writing. Had the film embraced the potential to channel The Shining, it may have played out more memorably. But, this is a love story so the horror plot devices that could have helped the film were not integrated into the plot. Although there are may significant contributors to a film’s success, the success of a film often relies upon the direction, writing, and cast. As briefly mentioned in my opening paragraph, the director (Morten Tyldum) of a film principally works with the cast and is responsible for blocking, delivery of dialog, and perception; so, it is likely the screenplay by Jon Spaihts that is responsible for the weak story. A director and cast can work hard to makeup for a weak screenplay, but in this case, the lack of developed story showed through.

Despite sharing the screen with Aurora, this truly is Jim’s movie and others simply happen to appear in it when necessary. As a side note, I could easily see how this film could be translated into a stage production. Perhaps on stage, the story could evolve to leave more of an impact on the audience.

“Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” movie review

Mockingjay 2Audiences witness a franchise and world-wide phenomenon come in for a mostly smooth, however anti-climactic, landing. The final installment in the Hunger Games franchise Mockingjay Part 2 over-promises and under-delivers. Despite that, the continued plot from Part 1 is carried out well enough and has many poignant moments and a few exciting sequences. You will also get to watch two of the best-written scenes in the entire franchise. Instead of a continued goodbye to Philip Seymour Hoffman, his few appearances in the film actually remind audiences that the majority of Part 2 was actually filmed in early 2014 and all the actors have long-since moved onto other projects and left the dystopian world of Panem behind. The first act of the movie begins abruptly and may bore you, but Acts Two and Three will deliver some impressive scenes and generate a great deal of excitement and anticipation. At the end of the day, The Hunger Games is one of the best examples of a cash grab with only Disney’s Frozen leading the pack for the ultimate superficial, absent of any critical value, cash cow.

Pick up right where you left off with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) having just survived the vicious attack from Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). By now, Katniss, President Coin (Julianne Moore), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and Finnick (Sam Claflin) all realize that the stakes are incredibly higher than they ever thought. For now, they are on a mission for the survival of the rebellion and to keep Panem from imploding on itself and falling into complete chaos. Ignoring President Coin’s orders, Katniss stows away and joins a special operations team on the front lines with one goal in mind–assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With the end in sight, the rebellion infiltrates the capital and continues to press on toward the presidential estate in order to bring the thoughtless deaths and dictatorship of Snow to a close.

Over all, the movie does a good job of bringing the high-concept plot to a close. It also finishes its run on top as other films try to be a Hunger Games but fail to deliver the same value. You know you did something right when there are half a dozen other big-budget films and parodies that are based on similar concepts made popular in the franchise. The most prominent disappointment in Mockingjay Part 2 is the abrupt start and fairly anti-climactic denouement. This film cannot be entirely held responsible for the rough first act because Part 1 should have ended with Peeta strangling Katniss before we witness her in the neck brace. Starting Part 2 with Katniss in the neck brace without having seen her in it, in the previous installment, would have been a much better choice. Her recovery from the acute neck trauma was also a little rushed. It would have been more appropriate and added to the emotional power of the film to see her slowly recover as she makes her way towards Snow’s mansion. The chemistry between Katniss and Peeta is not as well played out in this chapter as it had been in the previous movies. Not having read the books, I am unsure if that is how it is supposed to be or the writers and director just didn’t feel the chemistry was important.  There are a few tense moments between Peeta and Katniss that show a quality of writing not often found in the rest of the franchise.

Although the writing throughout the films has not been a strong point–not that is has been bad–just that it is not as strong as it should be, there are two scenes from Part 2 that are emotionally powerful and very well written. Without giving anything away, there is a scene with Katniss and Peeta lying awake at night talking. The exchange of dialog is some of the best writing in the entire series; however, just when the writers were about to hit a homerun, it ends suddenly at the buildup. The emotional highs and lows of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta are seen in this brief portion of the movie. Towards the end of the movie after the capital has been won over and Snow is being held captive in his own estate, Katniss approaches him for what would be one of the last times. She finally comes face to face with her oppressor turned prisoner. If there was one scene selected for its contributions to the film in both acting, writing, and directing, this scene would be it. The tension felt between Snow and Katniss is so think that it could be cut with a knife. Truths are told and secrets revealed that are a game changer that comes out of left field (for those of us who have not read the books). In many movies, a scene like this may not contain much in the way of class, but Sutherland brings that sense of the notorious paired with high class that he is known for.

This is it! We finally get to the capital. Wait. It is already in ruins??? Despite the fact that some of the best scenes from the Hunger Games franchise take place in this last installment within the walls of the opulent, garish, lavish capital of Panem, the audience does not get to witness the decay and destruction of the city that flourished on the backs of those who begrudgingly took from their lands to support the lifestyle of the 1%. Where is the forced transition from, what amounts to, heaven to hell? The gold and silver lined streets, turning into ash??? There would have been some critical and intrinsic value in watching the city destroy itself amidst the house of cards that it build. Instead we get thrown in to the post-war Panem. Even for our characters, there would have been immense satisfaction in watching the capital pay for the shattered lives and broken families that proved the resources for their glutinous lifestyle. Just before the war comes to an end, there is a death scene that is handled quite poorly. There is no emotional windup or climax–it is just a quick death that you could miss by looking down at your popcorn or that text message. Audiences leave the world of Panem with some degree of hope for the once dystopian society that finally has a chance at a fair, democratic, and bright future.

It is definitely evident that this franchise fought hard and valiantly to stay relevant and alive for the past few years. From what I can gather, this last installment in The Hunger Games plays it closely to the book, with some exceptions that definitely could have been visually told better. It does what a final chapter should do and brings the narrative to a close by providing a degree of resolution. Even though there are many elements of the movie that could have been treated with more finesse and better developed, it is probably the best in the franchise. Whether you only watch the movies or you are among those who read the books and then saw the movies, this film should appeal to both audiences.