“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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“It Comes at Night” movie review

The Doore of Red Death. A24’s highly anticipated horror film It Comes at Night by writer-director Trey Edward Shults looks beautiful and beckons for attention, but fails to live up to the storytelling and payoff of A24’s The Green Room. Another A24 film in the vein of It Comes at Night is 2016’s The Witch, which was ultimately a failed attempt to capture the magic of a horror/mystery film and leave audiences with too many unanswered questions. The only “terrifying ambiguity” (to quote The Huffington Post), in this film, is just how terrifying it is to realize you just dropped money on a film that works better for Netflix, and the ambiguity comes from the plethora of underdeveloped plot elements. Essentially, It Comes at Night reminds me of a bad M. Night Shyamalan film (before he made his outstanding comeback with The Visit and Split) and after the successes of The Sixth Sense and Lady in the Water. Like the aforementioned era of ehh Shyamalan films, the wind up is excellent but the delivery lacks any emotional impact and you’re left with realizing that you never truly cared about any one of the characters. Character development is lacking, and the third act is incredibly weak. However, there is something in particular that I find very interesting; and after reading other reviews, it seems to be something that has escaped most (if not all) the critics at this point. That is the striking similarities between this film and the timeless classic short story The Masque of Red Death by the brilliant Edgar Allan Poe. From the painting on the walls of the house depicting the bubonic plague to the ominous red door, there are quite a few parallels between It Comes at Night and The Masque of Red Death.

Nestled deep in the woods is a secluded boarded up house belonging to a family of three seeking refuge from an unknown threat. Whatever has caused this family to live off the grid and fend for their very survival is tasteless and odorless. Forced to wear gas masks whenever venturing out into the woods and even around their own home, the family is forced to take drastic measures to ensure there ability to avoid coming into direct contact with the disease. With only now way in or out of the house guarded by a red door, the family has stopped at nothing to protect themselves. One night, the family’s house is broken into and they must decide what to do with the man and his family. Having dispensed with courteousness and generosity in order to guard against any and all possible threats, the family must decide whether to listen to the man or kill him right then and there. Their decision will spark a fire that spreads into their deepest fears.

*spoiler alert* But, the analysis is fascinating.

Okay, now I know that the preceding paragraph describes what should be a brilliant horror film, but the problem lies in the greatly flawed poor storytelling, development, and realization. Lack of connection to any one of the characters is also partly responsible for the lackluster experience of watching this horror-thriller with a hint of mystery and dystopia. The only saving grace the film has is the connection to elements of Poe’s Masque of Red Death. For starters, the camera draws the audience’s (and diegetic POV) attention to a painting of a depiction of the bubonic plague (or black death). At first, I was puzzled as to why this painting. Then as I go through the movie, I realize why. Between the constant reference to and runtime spent on talking about and showing the red door, it hit me that this film reimagined Poe’s short story and set it in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic time and place. If you are unfamiliar with The Masque of Red Death, then I encourage you to read it or watch it on YouTube. It is allegory on the inevitability of death no matter how  hard you protect yourself, how much money you have, or how powerful you are. It also contains allusions to the seven deadly sins and the fate of those who party in the wake of mass death among a lower class of people. Although I find the short short to be a stronger narrative than Shults’ variation on this reimagination of the classic tale.

Both the short story and this film contain people hiding out in a fortress. Whereas The Masque of Red Death‘s Prince Prospero is held up ins abbey with his wealthy and noble friends while the red death is killing off the rest of the kingdom, A24’s It Comes at Night features a typical American family living off the land and secured in their rather tutor-looking mountain lodge. Like in Red Death, the family in It Comes receives an uninvited guest one night. Here’s where we see some difference. In Poe’s story, the guest is dressed to attend the masquerade ball and in this film, the guest attempts to break into the home. Although both stories take different approaches to the second act, once thing is in common. And that is the taking in of an outsider. All through the second act, there are hints at something not being right–a constant uneasiness. That apprehension and anxiety regarding the unknown works in the respective stories favors. The emotional impact and psychological payoff differs between the short story and film. Yes, the endings are very similar but feel incredibly different. You’ll just have to read The Masque of Red Death and watch It Comes at Night to know for yourself.

If you’re searching for a thriller to watch this weekend, as it is rain in many parts of the country, then perhaps you should watch Universal Pictures’ The Mummy instead. However, if you are curious about how well It Comes at Night parallels Poe’s short story, this definitely check it out. Not entirely sure why it’s rated R, but in case that’s important to you. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm, “well, there it is.”

“The Gift” movie review

TheGiftWho knew a slow-burning plot could be well-paced at the same time. The Gift is the latest movie released by Blumhouse and performed quite well over the opening weekend. Although billed as a suspense/thriller/stalker movie, it plays as a dark drama with a few intense jump scares. Unlike many movies in this sub-genre of horror, this one is surprisingly well-directed and written. In fact, there was only one exchange of dialog that I felt was extremely OTN (“on the nose,” meaning stating the obvious). Structurally, the plot is solid and leaves very little time for the audience to grow restless. Another interesting component to the movie is being predisposed early-on to side with and feel particular ways about the respective characters; but then after some big reveals, you begin to question your allegiance and favoritism. Perhaps you may find yourself rooting for whom you first admonished. There is much that is left up to interpretation, but not in a way that leaves you feeling negatively about unanswered questions. It’s one of those horror movies that encourages you to think differently about situations and characters.

The Gift is about Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) who move to LA for Simon’s new job. Relocating from Chicago, Simon and Robyn are excited to buy their new mid-century house and develop a life in a new city (which is actually childhood home of Simon). During an ordinary shopping excursion to a homewares store, the couple runs into a former high school classmate of Simon’s named Gordo (Joel Edgerton). After several conversations and a dinner invitation, Simon begins to suspect that there is something not quite right with Gordo and tells Gordo never to visit them again. Despite the harsh treatment from Simon, Gordo leaves gifts for the couple on their front porch, only some gifts should remain wrapped.

Other than a couple jump scares and eerie music, the movie is more of a mystery/drama than a thriller. It lacks that visceral thrill that curdles the blood throughout the movie. But despite that, it’s incredibly well paced and written. The excellent direction did not go without notice. Often times, movies that feature the director in a principle acting roll suffer because it is very difficult for a director to focus on orchestrating the storytelling and acting at the same time. Joel Edgerton is nearly unique in his demonstrable ability to successfully tell a visual story and deliver excelling acting. My only negative critique to the writing and the directing is the blatant absence of a climax/showdown. I was expecting something big to happen toward the end of the movie, in which the culmination of all the reveals and investigations come to fruition; but I was disappointed and felt unsatisfied with the resolution. Even though this is a different take on the whole stalker concept, I feel that the plot should have included a showdown in order to add a definitive thrilling element to the story.

Sometimes I think I know how a movie is going to play out; and often times, through my research and productions of my own, feel confident in my ability to read a movie through the trailer and the advertising. Not the case with this one. Honestly, I was expecting another Lifetime movie trying to make it big in the cinema (much in the vein of January’s Boy Next Door); however, I was pleasantly surprised and mostly happy with how this one played out and how well it was directed. It definitely leaves you to interpret actions, in the movie, for yourself and it also contains some very cool symbolism and subtext.