Film Review: Red Sparrow (dir by Francis Lawrence)


God, this film was a mess.

Red Sparrow is a spy thriller that features a lot of spies but not many thrills.  Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Ergova, a Russian ballerina whose career with the Bolshoi is ended when another dancer drops her on stage.  Fortunately, Dominka’s sleazy uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) has a new career in mind!  Maybe Dominka could be a sparrow, a spy who seduces the enemy!  Just in case Dominka doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life seducing westerners, Ivan arranges for her to witness a murder and then informs her that she’ll be eliminated as a witness unless she does what he tells her.  This, of course, leads to Dominkia attending State School 4, where she is schooled in the arts of seduction by Matron (Charlotte Rampling).  Upon graduation, Dominka is sent to Budapest, where she falls in love with a CIA agent named Nash (Joel Edgerton) and a lot of predictable spy stuff happens.  Despite all of the sex and violence, it’s just not much fun.

Red Sparrow has all the ingredients to be an enjoyably trashy 90-minute spy flick but instead, it’s a slowly paced, 140-minute slog that just seems to go on forever.  Throughout the film, director Francis Lawrence (no relation to the film’s star) struggles to maintain a steady pace.  Too much time is spent on Dominka’s life before she suffers the injury that should have opened the film.  Meanwhile, the only interesting part of the film — Dominka’s education at State School 4 — goes by far too quickly and, despite the fact that she was giving one of the few interesting performances in Red Sparrow, Charlotte Rampling vanishes from the film early on.  Once Dominkia gets to Budapest, the film really slow down to a crawl.  Joel Edgerton’s a good actor and an even better director but he gives an overly grim and serious performance in Red Sparrow and he and Jennifer Lawrence have next to no romantic chemistry.

(That lack of romantic chemistry petty much dooms the final forty minutes of the film.  It’s easy to imagine a much better version of Red Sparrow in which Bradley Cooper played the role of Nash.  True, that would have been like the 100th time that Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starred opposite each other but why not?  It worked for William Powell and Myrna Loy.)

As for Jennifer Lawrence, her performance is okay.  It’s not one of her best and there’s a few moments where it seems as if she’s more concerned with maintaining her Russian accent than with what’s actually going on in the scene but, for the most part, it’s a good enough performance.  That said, you do have to wonder how long she can go without having another hit film.  Despite being heavily hyped, Passengers, Mother!, and Red Sparrow all underperformed at the box office.  (In defense of Mother!, it was never going to be a box office hit, regardless of who starred in it.)  As talented as she is, it’s sometimes hard not to feel that, as an actress, Jennifer Lawrence has lost some of the natural spark that took viewers by surprise in Winter’s Bone, launched a whole new genre of dystopian YA adaptations with The Hunger Games, and which previously elevated unlikely films like The House At The End Of The Street.  She was a far more interesting actress before she became J Law.

Here’s hoping that she finally gets another role worthy of her talent!

Scenes I Love: The Phantom of the Opera (Part 3)


Point of No Return

It’s time to finish off my triptych of Scenes I Love from 2004’s film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. The first two parts were my favorite solo and chorus scenes from film and now we finish it off with what has to be the top scene (IMO) from the film.

The characters of The Phantom and Christine have always been the focal point of the film. Even with the arrival of the wholesome and (as Lisa Marie would call him) vanilla Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, the film continues to truly sizzle when it’s all about The Phantom and Christine moving their relationship from ingenue and mentor to unrequited lovers.

It’s the latter which this scene looks to portray through a duet written by The Phantom himself and where he swaps himself into the role of Don Juan. This duet has always been a fan favorite for those who love the musical and many different versions of it have played throughout the years. Yet, they all have one thing in common and that is the heated chemistry between the two characters once the duet begins.

The scene itself begins and comes off pretty much like foreplay between the two characters without having literal sex on the stage. The whole scene is so sexually charged that even those watching the duet who set the trap looked so transfixed that they fail to act. Even Raoul, Christine’s own fiance, finishes the scene with such a look of cuckold expression once he realizes that he could never have such a deep and personal connection that Christine has with The Phantom.

For me, this duet pretty much sums up what the whole is all about.

Scenes I Love: The Phantom of the Opera (Part 2)


Masquerade

Here we have the second of three scenes I love from the 2004 film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera.

The first scenes was my favorite solo from the film with Emmy Rossum as Christine Daaé performing the solo “Think of Me”. It’s a powerful scene that more than holds it’s own against the other solos in the film. The second favorite scene from this film comes in the beginning of Act II.

“Masquerade” is really the one and only true full cast and chorus production in the film and in the stage musical. While both would have songs and scenes involving multiple characters and a large of background chorus, this one pretty much cements the film’s grandiose and epic visuals.

Director Joel Schumacher may have his detractors and critics, but he definitely nails the grand masquerade ball in the opera house to begin the second half of the film.

Scenes I Love: The Phantom of the Opera (Part 1)


Think of Me

Stage productions, especially musicals, have always drawn me. I think it goes back to my time in my final two years in high school when, on a lark, I decided to join the Drama production as part of my after-school activities. For a teenager whose never really had any experience watching musicals prior to joining one I was surprised as any to have fallen in love with the art when exposed to it.

Musicals range from classic Sondheim-style productions to the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera epics right up to the Matt Stone and Trey Parker comedy musicals. I love them all. One musical production that I was literally obsessed with during those late high school years was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera production of The Phantom of the Opera.

I knew the songs by heart and, even now, I still remember those final years of high school fondly because of this particular musical. So, finding out that they were going to make a film adaptation of the musical had me feeling both excited and hesitant.

How could a stage musical translate to film if they cast more for acting and less for singing?

My trepidation ended up being unfounded once I finally saw the film and was satisfied that all involved were more than up to the task of performing the iconic roles in the musical.

This first of three of my favorite scenes from The Phantom of the Opera comes early in the film as Emmy Rossum’s understudy, Christine Daaé, gets a chance to show just how much she has learned from her mysterious tutor. “Think of Me” is the one of the signature solos in the musical (the other being the Phantom’s own) and Emmy Rossum nails the scene and song. The expression on the skeptical managers in the beginning quickly turns to surprise as does the rest of the cast and crew who never realized they had a genuine ingenue in their midst.

While I will admit that the song and the scene has been pulled off better on stage, Emmy Rossum’s own experience singing as a member of the Metropolitan Opera as a child leading up to being chosen for the role of Christine Daaé more than makes her hold her own against those who came before her.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #109: There Will Be Blood (dir by Paul Thomas Anderson)


There_Will_Be_Blood_PosterYou know how there are some films that you really want to love and that you know that, given your taste in cinema, you probably should love but yet you somehow just cannot bring yourself to actually love?

To a certain extent, that’s the way I feel about the 2007 best picture nominee There Will Be Blood.  It’s a film that I greatly respect, as I tend to respect all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies.  He’s one of the best director working today and also one of the most consistently interesting.  (He’s also probably the only contemporary filmmaker who would actually base a two and half hour epic on the first 150 pages of a forgotten novel by Upton Sinclair.)  And I think that There Will Be Blood is a well-made and well-directed film.  I also think it’s well-acted, though I do think Daniel Day-Lewis goes a bit too far over-the-top at the film’s conclusion.   (If anything, Paul Dano is the one who actually deserved to win an Oscar for his work in this film.)  There Will Be Blood is an original work of cinematic art.  I’m thankful that it was made and that Anderson stayed true to his vision.

But, with all that in mind, it’s never been a film that I’ve been able to love.  Unlike Anderson’s earlier Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood holds the audience at a distance.  We remains outsiders looking in.  As a result, the film engages intellectually but not emotionally.  It’s a film that earns respect without necessarily winning the audience’s love.

Speaking of respect, that’s something that you have to give to both Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson.  From the start of the film, Daniel Plainview (played by Day-Lewis) is a cruel and self-centered bastard and that characterization remains consistent throughout.  Briefly, it does seem that Plainview might truly care about his deaf, adopted son but, by the end of the film, Plainview has even proven that to be wishful thinking on our part.  (The only other character to whom Plainview is consistently pleasant is a young girl named Mary but Day-Lewis plays those scenes with such a corrupt twinkle in his eye that the subtext becomes increasingly creepy.)  Give Anderson and Day-Lewis credit.  They commit to portraying Daniel Plainview as being an almost Satanic character and, at no point, does either one of them waver in that commitment.  As we watch Plainview ruthlessly buy up all the land and drill all the oil that he can find, we wait for him to have some moment of redemption.  It took guts for neither Anderson nor Day-Lewis to allow him one.

Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday, an evangelical preacher who stands in the way of Plainview’s efforts to buy up all the land around the Sunday family farm.  The film presents Eli and Plainview as being two sides of the same coin.  Plainview hides his moral emptiness behind his money.  Eli hides behind his religion.  The two characters hate each other because they alone truly recognize what they truly are.  Dano, who also plays Eli’s brother, gives a mesmerizing performance, one that unfortunately has been overshadowed by Day-Lewis’s work.

It all ends, as all things must, with violent death in a bowling alley.  I know that a lot of my fellow cineastes think that the bowling scene is the highlight of the film but, to be honest, this was the point where the film lost me.  To me, this was the scene where Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance crossed the line from being flamboyant to shrill.  The end just did not work for me.

However, two things that did definitely work for me: Johnny Greenwood’s wonderfully ominous and atmospheric score and Robert Elswit’s amazing cinematography, which made the film’s landscape appear both beautiful and threatening at the same time.  The mix of Greenwood’s music with Elswit’s cinematography created some truly haunting moments.

In the end, There Will Be Blood is a lot like Daniel Plainview.  It is powerful, memorable, unpredictable, flamboyant, overbearing, and at times a little frightening.  And, again much like Daniel Plainview, it’s a film that’s easy to respect and difficult to love.

Quickie Review: Frozen (dir. by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee)


FROZEN

“The cold never bothered me anyway.” — Queen Elsa

During the 1990’s Disney was the king of animated films. It was a decade where they enjoyed a new Golden Age of film animation which first started with Little Mermaid. As the company entered the new millenium their success with traditional animation began to wane and a new kid on the block took over as king. This new kid was called Pixar and soon enough they joined the House that Mickey built. So, it was through Pixar that Disney retained their crown when it came to animated films, but their own in-house animation house suffered setbacks through failed projects and/or subpar productions.

It was in 2010 when Disney itself began a nice comeback with the surprise hit Tangled. This new Disney take on the Rapunzel fairy tale became not just a hit with both critics and fans, but showed that Disney could compete with their very own Pixar when it came to CG animation and storytelling. These were two areas that Pixar were known for and Disney followed it up with another critically-acclaimed and fan-favorite Wreck-It Ralph.

Frozen marks the latest from Walt Disney Animation and, at first glance, the film looked like an attempt to replicate the fun and whimsical nature of 2010’s Tangled. Even some of the character animations looked similar. The film wasn’t helped by a media and ad campaign which made the film feel like it would be about pratfalls and juvenile jokes. Yet, what the public got when it was finally released this past Thanksgiving was a definite return for Walt Disney Animation to their heyday of the 1990’s.

The film takes Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen fairy tale and makes it into a story about the love of two sisters in a faraway kingdom where one grows up repressing her ability to control and create ice and snow for fear of harming her younger sister. It’s this part of Frozen which brings the film from becoming just an animated production for little kids and into the realm of appealing to audiences of all ages. Even Olaf the Snowman who was a prominent face in all the ads leading up to the film’s release ended up becoming more than just comedic relief.

The characters of Elsa and Anna, at first, look like your typical Disney princesses, but as the narrative moves forward the two pretty much blow up whatever negative tropes that have been attributed to past Disney princess roles. Anna didn’t just come off as the spunky little sister, but becomes a multi-faceted character who actually becomes the redemption for her older sister Elsa.

Now, speaking of Elsa, Disney has been famous for creating some very iconic female characters with their animated films. Some of these characters have been the protagonists in their films, but some have also been the villains. In Frozen, Disney has created a character in Elsa who many could say inhabited both sides of the film’s conflict. She becomes a sort of antagonist midway through the film due to fear and ignorance of her ability to create and control snow and ice. This incident also prompts the film’s turn from being just a cute and fun film and into the realm of becoming a classic in the making.

Seeing Elsa accepting her true nature and becoming more confident in herself as a woman makes Frozen a rarity in animated films where females character tend to have male counterparts to help them along. Elsa also becomes such a great character due to Idina Menzel’s voice performance both in the speaking parts and the songs Elsa becomes a part of. In fact, I would be quite surprised if the most pivotal moment and song in the film, “Let It Go”, doesn’t end up winning best original song come Oscar time. Ms. Menzel brought so many facets of emotions through Elsa from a sense of despair to a sassy determination that should make the character a fan-favorite of little girls and mature women for years to come.

Frozen, a film that looked like it was a flop for Disney waiting to happen, ends up becoming one of the surprise hits of this holiday season and cements the return of Walt Disney Animation back to the forefront of animated film storytelling. This was a film that ended up becoming more than it’s initial first impression had going for it. A film that showed the power of female-centric storytelling could compete with the sturm und drang of the male-dominated blockbusters.

I wholeheartedly recommend people see this film on the bigscreen if just to experience Idina Menzel’s performance in “Let It Go” on the biggest screen venue as possible.

Quick Review: John Carter (dir. by Andrew Stanton)


John CarterThe First Impression:

John Carter is a cute Disney film that you may enjoy more than you’d thought you would. It’s lively like The Rocketeer was and really has some great moments and interesting characters. Both the leads carry their roles well, and are eye candy for the audience. It’s worthy of all of the love it should get, but obvious comparisons to movies that came before it (even though the story predates those films), along with a shockingly forgettable score by Michael Giacchino may actually hurt it. If you’re expecting blood and guts, not so much. It’s a Disney film. The kids should love it, though the pace of the film in the beginning may seem a little slow for younger audiences. Skip the 3D version and go for the 2D instead.

The Longer Version:

It’s really sad when you see a movie that deserves all the love in the world, but for some reason just doesn’t quite hit the mark. Part of that is due to the way this was marketed. It really didn’t feel to me that Disney was putting their all behind this. When you look at how heavily marketed Tron: Legacy was, this seemed like a “Hey, we made it, just give us money.” kind of push.

As far as John Carter is concerned, maybe it’s better to look at it like this. We tend to compare things to make sense of them:

This object reminds me of that object.

All of James Cameron’s Avatar reminds me of Ferngully.

Remember, Short Controlled Bursts. What movie comes to mind when I say that?

This is ultimately the problem with Andrew Stanton’s John Carter. In watching it, you’ll end up making comparisons to so many other films that came before it. However, knowing that it was based on the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it’s a lot like seeing Lord of the Rings for the first time when all you know of Elves and Dwarves comes from Dungeons & Dragons, The Elder Scrolls games or World or Warcraft. Burroughs’ material predates just about everything it showcases, from a pop culture standpoint. Hell, for all I know, John Carter was probably the original inspiration for the Kwisatz Haderach in Frank Herbert’s Dune (though that’s just my speculation). The problem is, with comparisons being what they are, audiences may view John Carter as a copycat of all the movies that were probably influenced by it.

I didn’t walk into John Carter with a lot of expectations. Andrew Stanton, for me, has the track record of being Pixar’s Dark Horse. This is the same guy that killed off a mother and a hundred of her babies in the opening moments of Finding Nemo. A man who gave a bleak, dirty and desolate future in Wall-E. Yet, both of those films had a theme of love and of heroes that rose to the occasion, so seeing the previews for John Carter told me enough.

John Carter is the story of a man in search of a cave full of gold. He wants no part of anyone’s battles and when he’s asked to join a faction, he does his best to avoid it. This leads him to a situation where he’s transported to another world. Just as it was with Earth, he encounters a number of different factions (all of which seem to feel he could aid them), but he simply wishes to return home. When he meets a fierce female fighter (who also happens to be a scientist), they work on figuring out how he arrived on Barsoom and how to get back.

The beautiful thing about John Carter is that it really feels like one of those old serials, or to make a more modern comparison, like an adventure film on the Indiana Jones level of things. There are a number of scenes where I found myself genuinely laughing at what was on screen. The visuals could be better in some places, but it’s nothing that’s groundbreaking. I look at John Carter as a pop culture lesson. You can see where other stories have used elements in the Burroughs tale. In that, it worked for me. The action scenes were really enjoyable for me, but some of the scenes between that could have been tighter. When you find out the reasoning behind Carters arrival, you may end up wondering why more wasn’t done with it with that story arc (on a technical level, anyway). As I’m unfamiliar with the original John Carter stories, I watched a few interviews of the cast and Taylor Kitsch noted that in the books themselves, Carter was pretty much the same person through every one. Stanton added a bit of character depth to him, with a little help from Spider-Man 2 scribe Michael Chabon. Chabon’s also responsible for the great Wonder Boys and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I still haven’t finished as of this writing. Carter is a conflicted individual for Disney purposes, but you shouldn’t expect Oscar performances here. It’s far better then Immortals was, in that sense.

Both Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins do well with their roles. Having worked together for about a hiccup in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, they have a good chemistry together. Kitsch is gruff with his mannerisms, and I can almost forgive him for playing Gambit. Collins is beautiful, statuesque even, and her character really does a lot of damage, fight wise. She’s very strong in some areas, though later on in the film, it felt like they may have eased that down a bit. Willem Dafoe has an inspired role in the leader of one of the alien groups that find Carter first when he arrives in Barsoom. Of course, no film would be complete without a villain and John Carter features two in Dominic West (Zack Snyder’s “300”) and Mark Strong (who’s almost always a go to bad guy). West’s character is more of the take action baddie, while Strong’s character is more of a calculating, behind the scenes one. Of note are Samantha Morton (“Minority Report”) as Sola and a little creature called Woola, that really reminded me a lot of Dug from Disney / Pixar’s Up. I wouldn’t mind having a few of those around the house.

The music for this film worked when the scenes were slow. However, when it called for action, I really didn’t feel anything special about it. I stayed to watch the credits only to find that it was Michael Giacchino’s work, who’s normally really good. I don’t know, this one seemed like it was phoned in for the action scenes. It’s okay, but I didn’t have that urge to buy the soundtrack afterward (which I have done for more memorable scores after leaving the theatre).

Overall, John Carter was a fun film in the vein of Disney’s earlier movies, but it’s not anything you absolutely have to run out to the theatre for. I’d love to see it do well and hope that there’s a sequel on the way, but when you’re paying a good $15 dollars for a 3D movie ticket ($20 for an IMAX 3D showing), the visual return on investment isn’t all that great. The story was enjoyable and didn’t slow down too much, but you may find yourself thinking that you’ve seen this film before in the way that so many other movies reference Burrough’s tale.

As a bonus, Disney released 10 minutes of the film. Enjoy: