‘Red Sparrow’ Thrives on the Presence of Jennifer Lawrence

Red Sparrow movie poster

I will be curious to see what audiences will have to say about “Red Sparrow” after seeing it. Those expecting a Jason Bourne-like adventure or something along the lines of “Salt” which starred Angelina Jolie as a sleeper spy may be disappointed as this film feels more like an adaptation of a John Le Carre novel where the lives of spies are not the least bit romanticized. The movie itself is based on the book of the same name by Jason Matthews who, like Le Carre, was once a member of an intelligence agency. What results is a motion picture which is not as interested in gunfights or car chases as it is in the mind games spies play with one another as the art of manipulation becomes a far more powerful weapon than a bullet. It also serves as yet another reminder of how Jennifer Lawrence is one of the best things in movies these days as she sucks you right into her gaze and never lets you go.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a gifted Russian dancer who suffers a career-ending injury at the movie’s start. With her dancing now a thing of the past, she and her mother find their future looking particularly bleak as the loss of their apartment and medical care become imminent. As a result, she accepts an invitation from her loving but undeniably devious uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), to work for Russian intelligence. But whereas most spy movies see recruits being trained in the ways of martial arts and weaponry, the recruits we see here are instead trained in the ways of manipulation. Or, more specifically, sexual manipulation.

The scenes where we see Dominika and others being trained in the ways of manipulation help make “Red Sparrow” stand out among other spy movies as I can’t remember many which see new recruits being made to use their minds and bodies as weapons. Heck, the only one I can think of like it is “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” and that film came out back in the 1980’s. As the Headmistress of the spy training school, Charlotte Rampling gives us a passive aggressive version of the sadistic drill instructor from “Full Metal Jacket” as she forces her students into situations which will test their mental defenses instead of their physical ones. We never see her raise her voice or yell at her pupils, but this is because Rampling makes it clear why she doesn’t need to do so. You can question her, but she will make you see why you shouldn’t have in the first place.

Once “Red Sparrow” moves from the school and into Dominika’s mission which involves her meeting up with CIA agent Nathaniel “Nate” Nash (Joel Edgerton), the story enters into familiar territory as we watch these two spies from different countries fall for one another in a way which goes against their training. Still, it’s fascinating to watch Lawrence and Edgerton test one another as each try to crack through the mental they have built to protect themselves. It reminded me of when James Bond went head to head with Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale” as each tried to learn more about the other. Both kept their guard up as they wondered who would break first.

Ever since her breakthrough performance in “Winter’s Bone,” Lawrence has proven to be an amazing talent as she brings a natural charisma and a raw energy few others can these days. Her work in “Red Sparrow” is no exception as she kept my eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. Seeing her go from a gifted ballerina to a methodical agent is mesmerizing as Dominika looks to get the upper hand in each situation she gets thrust into, and Lawrence nails each note of her character while maintaining a Russian accent which doesn’t fail her. She is not out to give us another variation on Katniss Everdeen here as the character of Dominika takes this acress down a road she has not traveled down before.

Speaking of Katniss Everdeen, “Red Sparrow” was directed by “The Hunger Games’” Francis Lawrence, and he certainly knows how to get the best out of his leading actress. In addition, he also keeps a solid level of tension flowing throughout. Yes, the movie does run a little too long, and the torture scenes we see pale in comparison to those in spy movies of the past. Heck, a similar torture scene in “Casino Royale” was far more painful to endure, and that 007 adventure was PG-13. Still, Francis gets plenty of mileage out of the mind games each character plays on the other.

It’s impossible not to think about the #MeToo movement while watching “Red Sparrow” as Lawrence is greeted with brutal assaults on her character by men prepared to take what they want without anything resembling remorse. Like Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” her character of Dominika is forced to exist in a male-dominated world which leaves everyone of her gender little in the way of options, something which needs to change now. This makes the character’s revenge all the more fulfilling as she puts those men in their place in sometimes painful ways. Of course, this will most likely make “Red Sparrow” harder to sit through for many audience members.

“Red Sparrow” does have its flaws, and its conclusion is not as fulfilling as I thought it would be, but I find it impossible to deny the compelling effect it had on me overall. And again, Jennifer Lawrence reminds us why she is one of the most enthralling actors working in movies today. She dares you to look into her eyes to see if you could possibly find your way into her soul. Even as the movie goes through the familiar tropes of the spy movie genre, the Oscar winner keeps us watching her every move.

They say the truth shall set you free, but in the world of “Red Sparrow,” the truth is likely to get you killed. Realizing this reminds me of the Depeche Mode song “Should Be Higher” as David Gahan sung about how “lies are more attractive than the truth.” For Dominika and Nate, their lies have to be. Or do they?

* * * out of * * * *

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‘Justice League’ Doesn’t Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound

Justice League movie poster

You know how the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing, but it’s also the first big race of the season instead of the last? That’s what “Justice League” is. It’s the penultimate motion picture of the DC Extended Universe, and yet it’s coming to us before Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg get their own solo films. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every character was in their own movie before “The Avengers” finally arrived on the silver screen. Granted, Hawkeye and Black Widow have yet to get their own movies, but enough groundwork was laid to where the time had come for “The Avengers” to become a reality. With “Justice League,” its long-awaited appearance feels a little premature.

Following the events of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), and all the other superheroes are trying to move on despite the large void the Man of Steel has left in his passing. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) remains as dour as ever, but his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) threatens to be even more dour to where they seem to be having a contest in that department. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leads a quiet life working in a museum, Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) spends the days hiding in his apartment because everyone thinks he is dead and he hates his father for saving him through the use of cybernetics, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is busy drinking his life away when he’s not swimming in the ocean, and Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) spends his days trying to fit in with kids his age while moving at supersonic speed. These superheroes couldn’t be more mismatched, but they of course find themselves working together to stop a fearsome enemy bent on world domination.

This enemy is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a supervillain determined to find three boxes of power known as the Mother Boxes and, in the process, escape the role of servitude he has been consigned to for far too long. Steppenwolf is, you know, the kind of villain bent on gaining the most power of anyone in the world, and we all know what happens to people like them; they are either defeated as we expect them to be, or they become President of the United States.

The movie gets off to a terrific start with Batman battling a common criminal on the streets of Gotham, but it turns out to be a ploy for the Caped Crusader to discover the identity of another evil foe who thrives on the fear of humans. Following this, “Justice League” becomes a labored adventure as Batman and Wonder Woman take their precious time finding all the other superheroes, some of which are hesitant to join the party even though they realize their planet is at great risk of being annihilated. Knowing those holdouts will eventually become a part of the league, this proves to be the film’s most agonizing point as too much time is spent gathering everyone together.

Ben Affleck still makes for a good Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I sense he is already tiring of the role. Gal Gadot left a powerful mark on movies this year as Wonder Woman, and she is every bit as thrilling a presence here. Of the new additions, Jason Momoa proves to be a solid choice as Aquaman, and watching him here makes me look forward to the character’s solo movie coming out next year. Ezra Miller steals every scene he is in as the Flash, and he brings a wonderful edginess to the role while also bringing the character down to earth in an especially unique way. While Miller’s character is thrilled to have these superpowers, he still yearns to fit in with everybody else, and he portrays this inner conflict very effectively.

The same can’t be said, however, for Ray Stone/Cyborg as the character has little more to do in “Justice League” other than brood, argue with his father, and try to tell everyone in hearing range of how his powers can in no way be mistaken as a gift. This is with all due respect to Ray Fisher who does what he can with an underwritten role, but I grew tiresome of his complaining, especially when we all know he’s going to be in this league eventually.

But honestly, the real heart and soul of “Justice League” belongs to Henry Cavill who returns as Clark Kent/Superman. Even I refused to believe the Man of Steel was all but finished off for good at the end of “Batman v Superman” as you can’t keep a good superhero down, and Superman remains one of the very best. Even better is the realization of how Cavill no longer has the shadow of Christopher Reeve hanging over him as he manages to bring the same dedication to this iconic character Reeve did years before, and seeing Superman fight for justice this time around brought a big smile to my face.

Indeed, “Justice League” gets better and better as it enters the third act in which our superheroes band together to defeat Steppenwolf. While I found myself not caring enough about these characters in the first half, I really rooted for their success as the movie went on because the actors looked excited to inhabit these unforgettable characters. There are times when the filmmakers succeed in arousing our childhood love for these superheroes, and this is when the movie works at its best.

Of course, I have to wonder which filmmaker deserves the most credit for “Justice League.” Zack Snyder is credited as director, but Joss Whedon came in during post-production, and it is tempting to believe Whedon, who struck gold with cinematic comic book gold with “The Avengers,” managed to tap into our childhood innocence in a way Snyder could not. With “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” Snyder focused more on the characters’ darkness which has enveloped their lives, and you can’t blame him for going in this direction as DC Comics tended to veer into darker territory. But they got so dark to where there wasn’t much in the way to be found, and it was said Snyder was going to go in a slighter lighter direction with “Justice League,” but we probably won’t know how much lighter he made it until we get his director’s cut, and the fans are already clamoring for one like crazy.

I also have to give credit to Danny Elfman for composing an excellent score here. Even he is eager to spark our childhood innocence as his score contains themes he created for Tim Burton’s “Batman” as well as John Williams’ theme for “Superman” which remains one of the best superhero movie scores ever composed. Those subtle little touches make a huge difference as they help to reawaken the past in a most welcome way.

Looking back, “Justice League” is enjoyable for the most part as it builds to a strong climax, but it still feels like this all-star superhero movie was brought to us earlier than it should have. The parts which were lacking keep me from giving this movie a solid recommendation. I still look forward to the solo movies like “Aquaman,” but in the end the filmmakers crammed too many characters into a story already overwhelmed by them, and what results is not completely satisfying in a way a film like this should be.

What I am left with is the wonderment over how the visual effects team managed to remove Cavill’s mustache digitally. Because of his commitment to starring in “Mission Impossible 6,” he couldn’t shave it off when “Justice League” went into reshoots. Then again, it would have been interesting to see this Superman with a mustache as it would have allowed Cavill to do something a little bit different with this iconic character. Of course, he would have to explain the unexpected presence of facial hair. How would he go about doing so?

“Well, something happened on the way to heaven…”

* * ½ out of * * * *

Race

race-movie-poster

2015 was a year where the biopic genre had a major resurgence with movies like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Love & Mercy.” Most biopics in recent years have been strictly by-the-numbers affairs which give us historical footnotes without going into much depth about the people they are about, but those two movies brought their subjects to life in a most wonderfully vivid way. “Race,” the biopic about gold medalist Jesse Owens which should have made years ago, will not rank among the best of the genre and starts off as a by-the-numbers affair, but it does get better as it goes along as we watch this iconic African American athlete get ready for the Olympics.

Instead of looking at Owens’ whole life, “Race” focuses on the years he went to college and began training with Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) who molds his running talent into something even better. Despite the adversity he and other African Americans face on the university campus, Owens soon becomes a star athlete and gets selected to compete in the Olympic Games. But these are the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin which was under the grip of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. On top of dealing with racism in America, Owens also has to deal with a dictator who will not be quick to celebrate any victory he could possibly achieve.

“Race” gets off to a rocky start as it gives us snapshots of Owens’ life without much in the way of introspection. We briefly see the troubled relationship between him and his father in a wordless scene, but it’s never clear why these two aren’t getting along. To its credit, it doesn’t gloss over Owens’ affair which almost destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend and daughter, and it makes for some strong scenes as he desperately tries to win her back.

The movie, however, does get better when we watch Owens finding success, and there is a subplot involving Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) who battle over whether or not America should even participate in these Olympic Games. We also get to see Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose life could easily inspire a fascinating biopic on its own. Indeed, the politics behind these games help to make “Race” more riveting as it makes us see just how high the stakes were for everyone involved. Had it just focused on Owens, it would have been anti-climactic as we know how successful he would be at those Olympic Games.

“Race” was directed by Stephen Hopkins whose resume is all over the map as he has gone from making “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” and “Predator 2” to helming episodes of “24” and the acclaimed HBO movie “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” He does give the movie an amazing scene in which Owens enters the Berlin Stadium, and he puts us right into the man’s shoes as he works to tune out all the other voices yelling at him. Some biopics keep you at arm’s length away from their main subject, but this one makes you feel what it’s like to be Owens as Hopkins surrounds him with his camera to where we quickly come to understand what it’s like to be Owens at this moment. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, and he manages to not let this affect him as he makes his way to the starting line.

Playing Owens is Stephan James who played civil rights activist John Lewis in “Selma,” and he has been given the daunting task of humanizing such an iconic human being. But he succeeds as he gives us an Owens full of strengths and flaws like anyone else, and he never succumbs to portraying this gold medalist as some sort of superhuman. Had James done that, this movie could have easily fallen apart.

But the performance in “Race” I was most impressed with was Jason Sudeikis’ as Coach Larry Snyder. Sudeikis is best known for his time on “Saturday Night Live,” but the fact that he pulls off a first-rate dramatic performance here did not surprise me. Any actor or actress who can do comedy can certainly do drama as making people cry is a lot easier than making people laugh, but Sudeikis ends up giving this movie its most complex character. Snyder comes across as a hard ass when it comes to coaching his runners, but we come to see what fuels his commitment to them and of the things he was unable to accomplish as a runner himself. Sudeikis also has a great scene where he shows Owens and his team how successfully one can shout out opposing voices yelling at him in the background. He sells this scene for all it’s worth, and it makes me look forward to whatever this former “SNL” star decides to take on next.

“Race” is not going to go down as one of the best biopics ever made, but it is a compelling one all the same. While it does fall victim to reducing its subject’s life down to mere footnotes at the movie’s start, it does improve as we learn more about Owens and of the obstacles placed in his path when he decides to participate in the Olympic Games. In many ways, we should be thankful any biopic about Jesse Owens finally made it to the big screen as this movie should have been made years ago. Could it have been a better movie? Sure, but this one will do for now.

* * * out of * * * *