‘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 * * * *

‘Encounters at the End of the World’ Takes Werner Herzog to Antarctica

Encounters at the End of the World poster

As a movie buff, I have to admit it is shameful on my part I have not seen more movies directed by Werner Herzog. I did see “Grizzly Man,” a brilliant documentary about Timothy Treadwell and his obsession with the grizzly bears, and like all brilliant documentaries made today, it did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Thankfully, the Oscars did not ignore his documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” which is an endlessly fascinating look at his travels and discoveries in Antarctica. It is at times an incredibly beautiful look at an icy landscape, at others a bleak look at the inevitable end of the human race. At the same time, it also a rather humorous and interesting look at the people who risk their lives by living there to study the cutting-edge world of science.

Herzog narrates “Encounters at the End of the World,” and he allows us to go inside his head on how he views the icy wilderness of Antarctica, and of how he views the people and wildlife there. He makes it clear from the onset that when he was asked by Discovery Films to do this documentary, he agreed to it on the condition he would not be forced to do a “fuzzy” movie with penguins in it (a little jab at “March of the Penguins”). The first 10 or so minutes deal with the McMurdo Research Station which is full of buildings and tractors constantly moving all over the place. Herzog finds himself wanting to get away from McMurdo right away as he feels it is corrupting the Antarctic island with the inhabitants’ own self-interests as it is filled with horrors there like “yoga classes.”

Eventually, he ventures out of the encampment and into the far-off research facilities removed from the town. We see him and others there being put through safety drills and emergency preparations to deal with the worst of circumstances. The group leader speaks of how the wind can get so bad to where you can’t see even your hand in front of your face or hear yourself talk. This lends a chilling effect to an already chilled environment, and while it is exciting to be there, you feel the danger of it throughout.

The best part of this documentary, and the reason I wanted to see it, is the underwater footage where you follow divers underneath the glaciers of Antarctica. The visuals on display here are both beautiful and extraordinary to see, and there is a unique beauty to the underwater landscape you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. This is all reminiscent of James Cameron’s documentary “Aliens from the Deep” in which he went with scientists in submersibles down to the bottom of the ocean to see what things live down there. But while Cameron’s documentary was fascinating, this one is not encumbered with 3D effects and of looks at where the future will take us. It deals with the world we exist in right now, and it doesn’t hide from how everything will disappear in the distant future.

I was also eager to find out how these scientists were able to dive down into waters which they would not be expected to stay alive in for more than 5 minutes. They wear special suits which are heavily insulated to protect them from the cold, and they wear gloves that threaten to make them look like aliens from another planet. Herzog says the water they are diving into is -2 degrees Celsius, and the divers go in with no ropes attached to their bodies as it will give them more room to move around. Still, this is very dangerous work they are doing, and if they get lost underneath the glacier, they will become a permanently frozen resident. You feel the danger of what they are doing, but you end up getting overwhelmed by the spectacular visuals they discover underneath it all.

Another fascinating moment comes when some scientists on the island play recordings of the sounds the local seals make underwater. The seals themselves steal some scenes from the human actors as they lie back lazily in the sun and look too tired to get up and acknowledge anybody. The underwater sounds of the seals seem so unreal, and I could not help but believe they were all computer generated. But they are indeed the real thing, and you experience the sounds along with Herzog and the scientists as they put their ears down to the ground and take it all in. It’s an amazing moment to witness.

The other thing I really loved was how it was just not another average science documentary filled with talking heads telling you all the things you need to know about the environments they are studying. There is science talk throughout the documentary which is fine, but Herzog also looks at the individual personalities he comes into contact with throughout his journey. Along with Herzog, you also wonder what could make all these people come to one of the most isolated places on the face of the earth and of how they stay there for so long.

Among the people Herzog meets throughout his travels are a philosopher who has a great quote at the end of the movie about how the universe is looking at itself through our eyes, and how we give life to everything in the way we view it. We meet one of the scuba divers who has a pensive moment where he takes in the fact he is about to making his very last dive into the icy depths. Then Herzog meets up with a Russian who had escaped the Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the Russian almost loses it emotionally when he tries to describe to him how bad things were when he left. This Russian also has an escape plan at the ready with a big pack of supplies in case he needs to flee once again.

There are a couple of other people in the documentary who just talk and talk about themselves and the adventures they have been on. Herzog cuts them off in his narration by saying, “To make a long story short…”

“Encounters at the End of the World” does have a bleak view of humanity’s future, and the scientists are fully aware of this as temperatures continue to rise to where it is inevitable that ice will eventually melt completely in the future. This is also shown as we see a group of scientists watching “Them,” a 1950’s B-movie about radioactive ants which have grown to an enormous size. It turns out to be one of the many apocalyptic movies they show to each other from week to week. I wonder if they have ever gotten around to watching John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

At the center of “Encounters at the End of the World” is not just Antarctica, but Herzog himself. His narration throughout could have been annoying, but it serves to illuminate what a funny and interesting person he is. Clearly, he is attracted to madness in various forms throughout the world as is shown here and also in “Grizzly Man.” I imagine this is a big theme in all of his movies. We discover all there is to see through his eyes, and of how he views the beauty of the ice and how it forms. As a result, it does make me want to see more of his movies.

Just remember what one of the men says in this documentary, and remember it always:

“Global warming is real.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Ultimate Rabbit Exclusive Interview: Bryan Fogel Talks about ‘Icarus’

Bryan Fogel Icarus photo

Actor, writer and filmmaker Bryan Fogel first came to the world’s attention with “Jewtopia,” a play he co-wrote and starred in which went on to become one of the longest running shows in off-Broadway and Los Angeles history as it was seen by over a million viewers. Now he is set to reach an even larger audience with his documentary “Icarus” which will debut on Netflix on August 4.

Icarus documentary poster

“Icarus” follows Fogel as he went on a mission to investigate doping in sports. Like Morgan Spurlock in “Super Size Me,” he becomes the main experiment of his own documentary as he dopes himself with performance enhancing drugs to observe the changes they have on his body, and to see if he can avoid detection from anti-doping officials. By doing so, he aims to prove the current process of testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs does not work in the slightest.

During this process, Fogel comes to meet Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a pillar of Russia’s “anti-doping” program who aids the filmmaker in avoiding doping detection through various processes which include being injected with various substances as well as collecting daily urine samples which will be smuggled from one country to another. But as Fogel becomes closer with Rodchenkov, he soon discovers the Russian is at the center of his country’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program. From there, “Icarus” goes in a different direction as it delves deep into Russia’s program and discovers the illegal activities go all the way up to the country’s highest chain of command which includes Vladimir Putin. The deeper this documentary goes, the more aware we become of how truth can be an easy casualty as others die under mysterious circumstances.

I had the opportunity to speak with Fogel about “Icarus” while he was in Los Angeles to promote it. He spoke about the documentary’s evolution from being a simple exploration into sports anti-doping programs to becoming a geopolitical thriller where witnesses are forced to go into hiding. Also, he spoke of how Lance Armstrong’s admission of using performance enhancing drugs was merely a needle in the haystack as many athletes were utilizing the same chemicals and threw him under the bus to save their own careers.

Check out the interview below.

Exclusive Interview with Steve Hoover on ‘Almost Holy’

Almost Holy poster

Almost Holy” is one of the most harrowing documentaries I have seen in years as it follows the efforts of Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a Ukrainian pastor, who helps the drug addicted kids lost in the streets of Mariupol, Ukraine. After the Soviet Union fell, social services in Russia were severely cut to where many of its citizens fell into a life of drugs and prostitution, and Gennadiy pulls them off the street to give them the help they need at his Pilgrim Republic rehab facility. While many view him as a hero, others consider him a vigilante for his unorthodox tactics. The way he sees it, he doesn’t need anyone’s permission to do good deeds, and the documentary invites us to make up our own minds about him and what he does.

“Almost Holy” was directed by Steve Hoover whose previous works include the critically acclaimed documentaries “Blood Brother” and “Seven Days.” I got to speak with him while he was in Los Angeles.

Ben Kenber: How did you first become aware of Gennadiy?

Steve Hoover: I had friends who worked on an assignment in Ukraine doing a promotional piece for a nonprofit and they were traveling to a lot of different cities in Ukraine, and their last stop was Mariupol at Pilgrim with is Gennadiy’s rehab center. They were forewarned that this guy was fascinating and to not revert too much onto him, and the way they’ll describe is not intentionally, but he stole the show for them. They detoured from the project and followed him for several days and just filmed everything, and they described Gennadiy as having loads of stories and he just talked and captivated everybody in the room. These are friends of mine that I work with and they came back to Pittsburgh where I am based after that trip and they were like, “You have to see this guy. He’s open to being in a documentary and he has years of archival footage. Do you want to direct it?” And I was like, “Well, why don’t you direct it?” Anyway, they offered it to me to direct, so that’s how I got connected to Gennadiy and things went from there.

BK: What I found fascinating about “Almost Holy” is that you never judge Gennadiy. There are reasons to judge him especially when it comes to the way he gets kids into his rehab program. How were you able to keep a very objective perspective while making this documentary?

SH: I wanted people to have a similar experience that I had. I didn’t want them to have my exact experience. I found that I walked into this situation thinking that I knew and understood the story, but as documentaries go you never do. In general, I’m interested in people’s motives and complications of people’s motives, and I like to explore why people make the decisions they make because I find people so easily boil people’s motives down to very simple things. I just don’t think that’s ever the case. Why Gennadiy does what he does, there is not an easy answer for that. I think he’s somebody you could frame in a lot of different ways. People have made him look very heroic, and I wanted people to see what I saw and didn’t want to give people answers because I don’t ever feel confident in being like here’s how you should think or here’s how you should think about this person. You don’t have to do any work, just react emotionally to this.

BK: How would you say your vision of this documentary evolved from when you first started shooting it to when you were editing it?

SH: I think because my friends that had met Gennadiy had limited exposure to him, they thought the story was something. So what they communicated to me was what I thought the story was going to be; that Gennadiy only stays in Mariupol and pulls kids off the streets and rehabs them. That was what I thought I was walking into. I didn’t have personal correspondence with Gennadiy beforehand, so the first time I saw him was the first time I ever talked to him. Some people will do extensive talks with the subject to try to figure out if this is worth it, but I just fell into Ukraine which, for me, was fun because it was this exploration and it was very much an adventure. I quickly started to realize that the story was more interesting than that. How does he get more interesting than adopting homeless kids and rehabbing them? His story had evolved with the needs and problems of his city and what was around him, and I came to realize that adopting kids from the street through these night raids was a back story and that it was so much more ill-defined which made him more developed and interesting. When we started the conflict hadn’t happened. There wasn’t even like, “Oh now’s a good time to do something in Ukraine because there might be a conflict.” There was nothing. That all dramatically impacted the narrative of the film because the conflict forced its way into everybody’s lives in Ukraine, so for a while I wasn’t sure. In the middle of it there’s the Euromaidan revolution and I was like, I don’t think we need to get into that. But it just kept creeping closer and closer and then it just was on the doorstep and in his life and everybody’s lives. At first it was like okay, I can avoid this, but then I realized how much it actually helped the story because here you have a figure who cares deeply about Ukraine and has been an advocate, a social worker and a lot of makeshift things. Whether it’s the prettiest execution of those offices or makeshift offices doesn’t matter. He’s somebody who was trying to make a difference in his country, and all his years of work is now being threatened by a force he can’t control and that became more interesting to me. That’s how it changed.

BK: The documentary has a wonderful industrial score by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Bobby Krlic. Did you work with them closely on the score, or did you let the composers just work on it on their own?

SH: We had sent Atticus some clips of Gennadiy as a work in progress and said this is what we’re doing, would you be interested in being a part of this? He took interest for his own reasons, and he’s somebody who is creatively beyond me in what I do. He has incredible sensibilities and is someone you could absolutely trust. I was interested in seeing how these visuals inspire him and what he made of them, and he would send me bits of his work and his inspiration. The way I like to work is exactly like that, where composers would give me music. My last film had six or seven different composers and I only knew one of them personally. The great thing is Atticus had been working on it at his own time and pace based out of inspiration. Atticus, Leopold and Bobby, they provided a really excellent pool of material that I felt was inspired by the industrial backdrop of Ukraine. It’s interesting because there are definitely darker, bleak and intense moments, but there also these moments of hope in the score. There are moments that bring such character to the film. It was great working with him (Atticus) creatively. It wasn’t just like, “Hey what are your thoughts on the score?” I looked to him a lot for feedback on picture and on the edit, and he was very involved and very helpful. I respect his creative sensibilities a lot.

BK: The documentary also has the wonderful privilege of being executive produced by Terrence Malick. How did Malick become involved?

SH: With our last film we had worked with Nicolas Gonda who is also an executive producer on this film, and he is Terrence Malick’s producer. So we worked with Nicolas and, similar to developing a relationship with Atticus for the film, we had some work in progress and basically pitched the idea of creating an executive producer relationship for Nicolas and Terrence Malick. They took interest, so that’s basically how it happened.

BK: How many years did you shoot this documentary over?

SH: The film covers years, and a lot of that is due to Gennadiy’s archival footage. He had footage from 2001 to roughly 2008, and then we came into the picture in 2012 and shot. I wrapped the edit at the beginning of 2015, but I was still pulling news sources and things like that. So we were with the story for three and a half years.

BK: Are there any movies for you that helped influence the style of this documentary?

SH: I think more in postproduction. There’s a movement within documentary and creative nonfiction to make documentary films seem more dramatic and entertaining or to just push the creative boundaries of documentaries, so I like those ideas and those sensibilities. My last film was kind of a happy accident. I was sort of rebelling against polished productions because I had been doing commercials and music videos for years, and I wanted to do something that didn’t matter what the picture looked like and was more heart. I didn’t know very much about documentaries towards the end of that. I was like, what if I could care about the image but still give it heart or authenticity? So that was sort of what drove a lot of my creative decisions with “Almost Holy.” I wanted it to be more classic filmmaking. I didn’t want to bring the slider or certain things. I just wanted it to feel like a classic film with just traditional lockdowns and nice shots as much as possible. We were on the go a lot so that didn’t always work out, but even with when people were talking I made sure we always had two cameras running to film it like a narrative film so that I could cut dialogue later so you could feel the conversation like you would in a film.

BK: That’s interesting because a lot of directors come from the world of music videos and commercials, and it seems to be that that world is more about style than anything else. So to escape from that has got to be very fulfilling in a sense when you come to a documentary like this. Would you say that is the case?

SH: Yeah. With the last film that was very much the case, and then with this one it was kind of like marrying the two worlds. I have these years of experience with the crew that I work with, and these guys are very talented. What if we applied all of that in a running gun setting? Everyone adapted very well to it. We were in places where we had a minute to set up our shots and we would be stuck on a lens and we just made do, but I feel like it was very rewarding. It was hard, it was really hard. It was basically five filmmakers and then six people with the translator trying to make this happen. We had an insane amount of gear, but everyone pulled their weight and I think they did a fantastic job.

I want to thank Steve Hoover for taking the time to talk with me. Please visit the “Almost Holy” website to find out how you can view it (www.almostholyfilm.com).

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.