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

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Movie review: Call Me By Your Name

Movie reviews

Hello!

Another awards’ contender has landed in theatres! This is the review of Call Me By Your Name.

IMDb summary: In 1983, the son of an American professor is enamored by the graduate student who comes to study and live with his family in their northern Italian home.

Writing

Call Me By Your Name was written by James Ivory (a writer and director of mainly indie dramas), based on the book by Andre Aciman. To begin with, I’m sure that the LGBTQ+ focus of this film will automatically mean that it will be compared to the big awards winner of last year – Moonlight – especially since Call Me By Your Name is also supposed to get at least nominated. I believe that this comparison is quite unfair because, even though both movies tell coming-of-age stories of young men, exploring their sexuality, the circumstances and the details of their stories are vastly different (race, class, time period, location, community – all these aspects of the two movies are on the opposite sides of the spectrum). Other topics of discussion, which will surely arise in the popular discourse, are the questions of consent and age of consent. I can already see the online fights brewing, with minimal productive arguments about legality and morality, and full of trolls who just want to see the world burn.

Anyways, I, personally, loved a lot of aspects of the writing. To begin with, I liked the settings of the movie quite a lot, both the spatial one (Italy) and temporal one (the 1980s). Both of these places/times posses a feeling of freedom and history mixed with timelessness – almost a fairytale-like setting, perfect for a story of first love. And the said romance at the center of the movie was written beautifully and richly. The film explored the interplay between masculinity and sexuality, sensuality and sexuality, innocence and maturity, and emotional love and physical love. It touched upon the ideas of art, creativity, and self-expression. It portrayed the teasing and flirting stages of the relationship so purely. Call Me By Your Name also examined both the development of its main character’s personality and sexuality, e.g. wanting to be with Oliver and/or wanting to be Oliver (copying his mannerisms (‘Later’) and style (sunglasses, shirts, the pendant of the star of David).

The movie also presented an unheard of example of accepting parents. It was so refreshing to see parents being so nonchalant about their child’s exploration of his sexuality. That final speech of the father was one of the best written fatherly wisdom scenes ever. My few criticisms regarding the picture were: 1) it was a bit too long. I know that it was made to be long so as to build up the stronger connection between the characters and the viewers but I also believe that this connection could have been created through a few quality scenes much better than through a bigger quantity of mediocre ones. 2) I also would have loved to see the film interrogate the role of women in this instance, whether as supportive friends or ‘girlfriends for show’ a bit more.

In short, ultimately, Call Me By Your Name was a gorgeously written sad love story full of moments of hope and happiness and what can all of us ask more of life than brief moments to enjoy?

Directing

Call Me By Your Name by Luca Guadagnino – an Italian film director, best known to English-speaking audiences for his 2015 film A Bigger Splash with Tilda Swinton (a longtime collaborator of Guadagnino). He directed the film absolutely beautifully. Call Me By Your Name looked raw, rough, and unpolished – an example of natural beauty. The handheld camera brought the vibrancy to the film, while the close-ups helped to create an intimate and personal atmosphere. The lingering shots strengthened the emotional impact.

In addition, Call Me By Your Name explored the male sexuality by looking at the male physicality: the male bodies and their parts were at the center of the camera’s gaze. The topic of bodily physicality was continued with the inclusion of the sculptures into the movie. Some scenes were quite explicit and not the most comfortable to look at (*cough, cough*, peach). Other images were just beautiful and deserve to be framed in an art gallery. The closing image of Elio, looking at the fire and contemplating his experiences, was just so striking and a perfect visual to finish the film with.

Acting

  • Timothée Chalamet, who has previously appeared in Interstellar as well as some lesser-known indies, was absolutely brilliant as one-half of the main pair. The other half was equally brilliantly played by Armie Hammer, who is finally getting the recognition he deserves as an actor. He has experienced a relative level of success with The Social Network and J. Edgar and I also quite liked him in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Nocturnal Animals, and Free Fire, however, I believe that Call Me By Your Name will be his ‘big break’ and maybe even get him an Oscar nomination. Chamalet absolutely deserves one too.
  • The supporting cast of the film was quite small and didn’t have much to do. However, the aforementioned moment of fatherly wisdom would not have been the same without Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange, Arrival) in the role of the father. It was also lovely to see some European actors joining the American talent on screen, namely Amira Casar (in the role of the mother) and Esther Garrel (who played Elio’s friend).

In short, Call Me By Your Name is an emotional, beautiful, and raw drama about love and finding oneself through it.

Rate: 4/5

Trailer: Call Me By Your Name trailer

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5 ideas about a movie: The Beguiled

Movie reviews

Hello!

A festival favorite and one of the strongest summer contenders for the awards season – The Beguiled – has premiered, so, let’s review it!

IMDb summary: The unexpected arrival of a wounded Union soldier at a girls’ school in Virginia during the American Civil War leads to jealousy and betrayal.

  1. The Beguiled was both written and directed by Sofia Coppola, latter of which was awarded at the Cannes Film Festival – she became the second woman ever to the Best Director Award. I’ve seen some of her films (The Bling Ring and Lost in Translation), but I’ve always had her other pictures on my ‘To watch’ list. I really need to do a movie marathon consisting of not just hers but of The Coppola’s family tree films.
  2. The movie’s script was based on a book A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan and the main topic being explored was the taboo issue of female sexuality and, especially, the repressed female sexuality and its dangers. Thus, all the character development mostly revolved around this issue, with not much attention being paid to anything else. The actions of the women did not make them into likable characters, while their choices at the end of the film were really quite shocking, which, I guess, was the intention. I did like the jab at the ‘Southern Comfort’, though – it’s the food that kills you. Literally.
  3. The writing for the lone male character was the best and he was the most well-rounded individual. His slay manipulations could really be seen in Colin Farrel’s (The Lobster, Fantastic Beasts) performance: he knew what each of the ladies wanted him to be and fulfilled that role. He was the older brother and an adult of the world to talk to, he was someone to impress and a potential suitor. Mostly, though, he was the personification of the budding sexual fantasies. These type of manipulations in his demeanor and the bursts of anger made me kinda see his demise as weirdly justified.
  4. Coppola’s directing was full of classical elements, like the steady camera, the old school ratio, and the long shots. These long shots really dictated the pacing of the film. The Beguiled was slow but carefully crafted, however, I did feel that, on a few occasions, some shots were lingering for too long without any intensity in them to make up for the lack of literal action. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the way Coppola realized the setting of the Civil War, with the noises of the battle going off in the background, but never allowed it to overpower the romantic drama happening within the house. The Beguiled wasn’t a Civil War film but a romantic thriller set during it. For the first hour, it was quite innocent (flirty and cute), while the last half hour was full of unforeseen cruelty and insane choices (all those repressed feelings were just bubbling over).
  5. I’ve already briefly touched upon Farrel’s smooth performance, so, now let’s look at the female cast. Nicole Kidman (Genius, Lion), Coppola’s usual partner Kirsten Dunst (Hidden Figures, Midnight Special), Elle Fanning (Trumbo, The Neon Demon), Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys, Spider-Man), and Oona Laurence (Southpaw, Bad Moms, Pete’s Dragon) all starred in the picture. The sexual tensions and frustrations were palpable in all of their performances with the exception of the youngest cast member Laurence.

In short, The Beguiled is a beautiful and slow art-house cinema offering that focuses on a theme that is still not as widely discussed as it should be, in the year 2017.

Rate: 4/5

Trailer: The Beguiled trailer

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Movie review: Elle

Movie reviews

Hello!

The awards season is usually dominated by American and British films, while the non-English language pictures tend to be relegated to the Best Foreign Film Category. However, sometimes a movie escapes this section and gets wider recognition. The French language films (or pictures made by the French) are the ones that succeed at this the most often (The Artist, Amour) and 2016’s Elle is hoping to one of them.

IMDb summary: A successful businesswoman gets caught up in a game of cat and mouse as she tracks down the unknown man who raped her.

Writing and Acting: The main character and the lead actress

Elle is getting the most recognition for the performance of the lead actress – Isabelle Huppert. The film’s story revolves solely around her as the titular character. At first glance, the movie appears to be just another rape victim story that so often gets reduced to just being the awards bait for great actresses (like Downton Abbey’s rape plotline for Joanne Froggatt’s character). However, the character of Elle is so much more than a rape victim: she is complex and multifaceted and so much more than just the victim of her incident. The great Isabelle Huppert meticulously maneuvers this labyrinth of character traits and delivers a mesmerizing performance. And even though I would love for the Academy, the various guilds, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to recognize actresses that play more contemporary strong female characters, I cannot be that mad at them for rewarding Huppert, as she both conforms to the needs of this traditional role and also confronts them.

Now, let’s go over the writing for the main character in more detail. The script was penned by David Birke, based on the novel ‘Oh…’ by Philippe Djian. While I did not necessarily agree with all of their ideas, the film’s writing certainly raised questions.

  1. The fact that the female character is reluctant to speak out and treats the whole situation almost nonchalantly does not set the best example. The romanticization of the rape (Stockholme Syndrome) could also be seen as a problematic or at least a controversial choice.
  2. And yet, I applaud the film for being open about women’s sexual lives. This topic is becoming less and less of a taboo, especially, when films like Fifty Shades of Grey are being made, are seen by many, and then are discussed online (even if not in the most productive way).
  3. While the role of a rape victim might appear as a very traditional female role, the film’s complex commentary on rape and consent is really contemporary and extremely relevant.
  4. The background writing for the main character is super unique too because the female lead is portrayed as working in the field of video games. I don’t think I can name another film with a female character working in such a stereotypically male field.
  5. The personal background of the main character is super rich too. All the different relationships are super complex and interesting separately but the interconnectivity of them is the thing that makes them realistic and even more interesting. The father-daughter relationship affects mother-daughter relationship, while the friendship between the two co-workers suffers because of the cheating.
  6. The fact that the main female character is open to the idea of having multiple lovers and at least a dozen of admirers (employees) was not only a fresh development in the portrayal of female characters but also makes it more believable that this silence and nonchalance would be the way for her to deal with the incident (even if I don’t personally agree with her decisions).
  7. The fact that her father was a murderer and that she might also have violent tendencies adds another interesting layer to the character. Her jealousy and selfishness that would sometimes result in despicable and frankly creepy actions made it hard to see her as a victim but I also think that this might have been a conscious choice. This might show that bad things happen to bad people too or that the victimization or the sainthood of the victims are fickle facades that might not actually be true.

Directing

A well known Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, best known to the mainstream audiences as the man behind such films, like Total Recall and Showgirls, directed Elle and did a magnificent job. He unfolds this story brilliantly: the viewer is dropped into the film’s world straight up, without any set-up. The rape is showed in the first sequence and later on revisited and showed from different perspective and angles to not only enhance its effect but also to show the different outcomes of it. The whole ‘cat and mouse’ game is also realized neatly: it is slow but suspenseful and intense. The film is truly a psychological thriller with some elements of a great scary movie. It reminds me of Gone Girl, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, and Panic Room. And yet, it differs from these American films in its atmosphere: European films always seem realistically glamorous instead of being cinematically glamorous. The level of sophistication is also much higher.

Supporting Cast

The film has an extensive supporting cast full of European talent. The secondary roles are filled by Christian BerkelAnne ConsignyVirginie EfiraLaurent LafitteCharles Berling, Alice IsaazJudith Magre, Jonas Bloquet, Vimala Pons and Lucas Prisor and all of them do a fabulous job.

To conclude, Elle is either empowering or subversive and either traditional or contemporary (or both in both cases) film with a complex female lead who is brought to life by the astonishing Isabelle Huppert whose performance is subtle and restrained but still extremely powerful.

Rate: 4.5/5

Trailer: Elle trailer

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