Movie review: Red Sparrow

Movie reviews

Hello!

Welcome to March – the new ‘it’ month for high-profile movie releases. And it opens with Red Sparrow!

IMDb summary: Ballerina Dominika Egorova is recruited to ‘Sparrow School,’ a Russian intelligence service where she is forced to use her body as a weapon. Her first mission, targeting a C.I.A. agent, threatens to unravel the security of both nations.

Writing

Red Sparrow was written by Justin Haythe (who wrote two previous Gore Verbinski’s films The Lone Rangerand A Cure For Wellness), based on the book of the same name by Jason Matthews. I found the writing to be quite uneven and I’m going to unpack my ideas more broadly by discussing the narrative and the themes. The film had two parts, each about an hour long. The first hour acted as an extensive set-up and developed the main character quite a lot. The viewers got to follow her life as an everyday citizen (though she was never just an everyday person – she was always special, first as a ballerina and later as a sparrow), then to witness the inciting incident and its consequences: the extensive training to be a tool of the state (more on that in the second part on themes). The set-up was quite long but it did work: the main character’s capacity for the horrific actions that she was going to commit as a sparrow was always present in the set-up.

In the second hour of the film (+20minutes), Red Sparrow’s actual plot unraveled, and sadly, it was quite uneven. The writers really tried crafting a complex and layered story, full of characters with constantly shifting allegiances. And while that sounds all good – actually it is quite fascinating – the mysterious and the secretive nature of the plot was not always realized compellingly. Also, looking back to the plot – not all the dots necessarily connect and make sense. Still, I have to applaud the ending of the story. For a while, it seemed like the movie was headings towards a typical romantic conclusion but then it broke away from all of that and delivered and strong finale with some great double-crosses and twists. Though, the reveal of the mole was a bit heavy-handed and surprising it a bad way a.k.a.it came out of nowhere.

Thematically, I’d like to touch upon two major things: the usage of sex in the film as well as the Russia vs. US standoff. Before going to see the film, I got the impression that the main weapon of the sparrow will be psychological manipulation but I feel like the ads and trailers lied to me. Red Sparrow, in my mind, was missing its promised psychological manipulation and was all about the pure physical manipulation a.k.a. manipulation through sex. And while physical and psychological manipulations are certainly connected, I really wish that the movie would have looked at that actual connection or the psychological side quite a lot more. Also, the usage of sex by a specifically female heroine of the film raised even more questions about the position of female sexuality on film. While it can certainly be seen/used as a strong creative choice, it has also been reduced to a cheap trick quite a few times. Also, there is but a fine line between female sexuality as a form of empowerment or a tool of exploitation. To my mind, Red Sparrow was leaning more towards the second option, as the female sparrows were taught and made to use sex as a weapon by a patriarchal system rather than having chosen it as a weapon out of their own agency.

On the US v Russia front, the picture was certainly successful at establishing the askew nationalistic ideas that were/are so prevalent in Russia and portraying the brainwashing politics accurately. Still, it had an overall message of American heroism as the better/ the winning option. The weird US/Russia antagonism also made the movie’s temporal setting feel rather vague: it could have been set during the Cold War, the early aftermath of it in the late 90s/early 2000s or even just last year.

Directing

Francis Lawrence (the director of the 3 last The Hunger Games films, including my two favorites – Catching Fire and Mockingjay 1) directed Red Sparrow and did an okay job. I highly appreciated the style of the picture: the raw and indie feeling of it as well as the cold and cool tone. However, the slowness of the pace and the length of the movie really minimized the enjoyment of the film. Moreover, the plot (the substance) wasn’t good enough to make up for the lacking pace. The graphic violence and graphic nudity were both present in Red Sparrow and I don’t really know whether they served the plot or were they just there for shock value. During the scenes of violence, Red Sparrow did feel like a more contemporary version of its predecessor Atomic Blonde, while the scenes of creepy nudity were more plentiful than in the whole Fifty Shades franchise.

Acting

Jennifer Lawrence (reunited with F. Lawrence after THG) played the lead of the film and did a good job but she wasn’t great or irreplaceable. Her Russian accent was fine, though, at times, she did sound like she was speaking with a clogged noise (as if she had a cold). Her decision to play this role is probably more interesting than the performance itself. The actress has vocally expressed how uncomfortable she was with the skin tight costume of Mystique in the X-Men movies and yet she was somehow fine with complete nudity in this film? Was this an act of bravery and growth as a performer or a desperate attempt to reclaim some fame? Her fan circle has been decreasing: The Hunger Gamesfinished a with whimper rather than a bang, she annoyed a lot of Marvel/X-Men fans because of her lack of enthusiasm about that series, her various comments on talk shows have also been reacted to quite badly online, and even her last two more serious awards films failed to connect with the audiences or the critics (Joyat least got her another Oscar nomination, while mother! turned out to be a complete disaster).

Some big-name talent was also involved with this film on the supporting front. Joel Edgerton (Bright, Midnight Special, Loving, Black Mass) and Matthias Schoenaerts (Far From The Madding Crowd, The Danish Girl) had two best-developed and most interesting male roles in the film. Jeremy Irons (BvS, High-Rise) and Game of Thrones’ Ciaran Hinds (Justice League) also both appeared but in much smaller, cameo-sized roles. Charlotte Rampling (45 Years, Assasin’s Creed) played the matriarch of the school of the sparrows and it was quite unexpected seeing her in a film with a, supposedly, strong female lead after her sort of anti-women comments a few awards seasons ago (that ran along the lines of ‘women in the West don’t have anything to complain about’).

In short, Red Sparrow was a mediocre thriller that betrayed its message and overstayed its welcome.

Rate: 3/5

Trailer: Red Sparrow trailer

images.jpg

Advertisements

Movie review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Movie reviews

Hello!

Welcome to another birthday movie review! For the past 3 years, I have spent my birthdays at the cinema, always watching a comic book movie. In 2014, it was Guardians of the Galaxy, in 2015 – Ant-Man, and just last year – Suicide Squad. Well, this year, neither DC nor Marvel are releasing films in August, so, I’m branching out and giving a chance to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – a film, based on a French comic book Valerian and Laureline, advertised by the director Luc Besson as ‘the ‘it’ European blockbuster’, that is as good as its Hollywood counterparts.

IMDb summary: A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.

Luc Besson

The French filmmaker, known for 1990s’ classics Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element and that Scarlett Johansson Black Widow addition film – Lucy, both wrote and directed Valerian. Besson was a fan of the comic book by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières growing up but didn’t seriously consider adapting the property until Avatar showed him what can be done with CGI. I, personally, was quite interested in the film as I love the sci-fi genre as well as the previous work of the director. However, I seemed to have been the only one, as Valerian didn’t really click with the critics, nor the audiences. To be fair, even if the audiences liked the movie, no amount of the box office money could have justified the insanely huge budget. The decision to cast financially unproven leads didn’t help the film either.

Writing and Story

The writing for the film was quite a mixed bag. The story itself was actually quite interesting, however, it was way too drawn out. A lot of the plotlines truly felt like an excuse for the CGI team and the director to showcase more of the spectacular effects. If a lot of the scenes of the characters, aimlessly wandering around, would have been cut, the final product would have had a much tighter and more exciting adventure narrative. I didn’t hate the expositional scenes, though. I actually quite liked the silent opening of the film – the establishment of Alpha – and I did appreciate that the characters spelled out the plot points to the audience during the third act because the walking (or running) around scenes made me kinda lose track of the purpose of their journey.

Thematically, the two leads weren’t bad. I enjoyed the fact that the two of them represented different ideas – Valerian was all about the rules, while Laureline was more rebellious. Nevertheless, the character of Valerian bugged me because of how inconsistent he seemed. Although all the promotional booklets that I received prior to this film (one at the cinema and one during the Free Comic Book Day) introduced Valerian as super ambitious and career-driven major, in the picture, he seemed more interested in advancing his relationship with Laureline rather than getting to a higher career level. In truth, the whole romantic aspect of the movie wasn’t fully working for me and seemed a bit pushed.

Directing and Visuals

The visuals have been the most universally praised part of the film and I feel confident in seconding those praises. Valerian looked magnificent – from the character and the location designs to the scope, the CGI was both inventive and of good quality. It didn’t look photo-realistic, but it was a brilliant realization of a vision of fantasy. The sweeping shots of the market at the begging as well as the sequence of Valerian’s chasing the intruders through the Alpha station were two of my favorite parts of the film. The scene with Rihanna – her performance – was too long. Also, I wanted it to have more of the amazing transformations and fewer elements of a strip club-like dance. Lastly, the runtime (which I already mentioned) – Valerian was way way way too long. Honestly, halfway through the film, I could already feel its self-indulgence.

Acting

However unproven this cast was as the box office draws, I still mostly enjoyed them in the roles. I’ve been a fan of Cara Delevigne (Paper Towns, Suicide Squad) before she started acting and I always believed that she had a natural kind of charisma that shines through her acting. That might be because a lot of the characters are extensions of herself (rebellious, charming, and beautiful). Even though I think she is quite charismatic on her own, her chemistry with the co-star Dane DeHaan was not to be found. On his own, DeHaan hasn’t really blown me away as of yet and I still feel the same after Valerian. He was bearable in the role and I doubt that his career will get much of a boost. More importantly, if his box office numbers don’t improve, he might not get another chance. He might actually be better off sticking with smaller dramas than big actioners. 

The involvement of more serious, indie and niche actors, like Clive OwenEthan Hawke (Boyhood), and Sam Spruell (Sand Castle) was supposed to give this movie more gravitas, but I’m not entirely sure that that plan worked. These serious actors did seem a bit like caricatures of themselves, acting with all that green screen. Rihanna (Battleship, soon Ocean’s Eight) was fine in the brief cameo performance. (Fun fact: I saw her live at a concert almost exactly a year ago). However, her appearance in the film should have been played up way more – that might have been the only saying grace of this movie’s ad campaign. Speaking about the things that still might save this film – that’s Chinese audiences and the Chinese star Kris Wu, who has a small yet stereotypically crucial (plot-wise) role in the film. He made his Hollywood debut just earlier this year, in XXX: Return of Xander Cage

In short, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a grand and gorgeous film, with a runtime (and story) that’s even longer than the film’s name.

Rate: 3/5

Trailer:  Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets trailer 

valerianposter.jpg