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!

Cannes Film Review: The Mission (dir by Roland Joffe)


(With this year’s Cannes Film Festival coming to a close, I figured that I would start of today by looking at some previous winners of the Palme d’Or.  We start things off with 1986’s The Mission.)

The Mission opens with a man stoically plunging over a waterfall.  That man is a priest who, in the 1740s, has been sent to convert the natives of the Paraguayan jungle to Christianity.  The natives’ reaction to the priest’s arrival was to tie him to a wooden cross and send him over the falls.  It’s an opening that perfectly captures one of the main themes of The Mission: the contrast between the beauty of nature and the savagery of man.

The majority of the film deals with two men.  Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the Spanish Jesuit who replaces the martyred priest.  Father Gabriel is a pacifist who manages to win the trust of the natives through a shared love of music.  Gabriel plays the oboe and, when it is snatched away from him, reacts not with anger but with acceptance.  With the help of Father John Fielding (Liam Neeson), Father Gabriel builds a mission and works to educate the natives.  This brings him into conflict with the local plantation owners, the majority of whom just see the natives as being potential slaves.

That’s where Mendoza (Robert De Niro) comes in.  A brutish and violent man, Mendoza makes his living kidnapping natives and selling them into slavery.  When Mendoza discovers that his fiancée, Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi), has fallen in love with his younger brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn), Mendoza snaps and, in a moment of anger, kills his brother.  Seeking forgiveness for his violent past, Mendoza travels to Father Gabriel’s mission, dragging all of his armor and weaponry in a bundle behind him.  When Mendoza finally reaches the mission, he is not only forgiven by the natives but he also eventually ends up becoming a Jesuit himself.

And, for a while, everything is perfect.  That is until the Spanish turn over their land in South America to the Portuguese and the new colonials decide that having a mission around will make it a little bit too difficult to enslave the natives.  When Father Gabriel is ordered to close the mission, he refuses to do so.  He says that he will stay and that he is willing to be martyred if the Portuguese forces attack.  Gabriel believes that violence is a sin against God.  Mendoza, on the other hand, announces that he will stay and he is prepared to once again pick up weapons to defend the mission…

Dramatically, The Mission is uneven.  While Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson are both believable and sympathetic as Father Gabriel and Father Fielding and fit right in with the film’s period setting, Robert De Niro seems miscast and out-of-place.  As good an actor as De Niro is, he just doesn’t belong in the jungles of South America.  Whenever he shows up or speaks, your mind immediately goes to New York City.  The film tries to juggle so many theological and political issues that it can get a bit exhausting trying to keep up with it all.  Watching the film, it was hard not to wish for a chance to see what a director like Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick would have done with the same material.

That said, The Mission is a visually impressive film, one that captures the beauty, the innocence, and the danger of the jungle.  The scenes of both Gabriel and Mendoza climbing the waterfall are stunning to watch and, in the end, the film does have a sincere message about the ongoing fight for the rights of indigenous people.  That counts for something.

The Mission received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, though it lost to Platoon.  It also won the Palme d’Or, beating out such films as After Hours, Down by Law, Mona Lisa, Runaway Train, and The Sacrifice.

Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2016: Race (dir by Stephen Hopkins)


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Do you remember Race?

It came out in February of this year and it was kind of a big deal for a week.  I think everyone was expecting it to be a big hit, just because there’s never much competition in February.  Race is a biopic of Jesse Owens, the African-American runner who sets world records and won gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, defeating a legion of Aryan athletes while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands.  Not only is that a compelling story but 2016 was also an Olympic year.  Eddie The Eagle had already been a success due to the Olympic connection.  Add to that, Focus Features promoted the Hell out of this film.  In they weeks leading up to its release, I saw commercials for it on a nearly hourly basis.  The reviews, when the came, were mixed but generally positive.

I’m not really sure how Race did at the box office.  According to Wikipedia, on its opening weekend, it was sixth at the box office.  Apparently, the film only had a budget of five million and ultimately made a profit of $20,000,0000.  I guess that would make it a success.  All I know is that it seems like, for all the hype, Race just kind of came and went.

In fact, I didn’t see Race until about two months ago.  It’s one of those films that’s not really great but it’s certainly not bad.  It’s pretty much the epitome of being adequate.  It was well-made and generally well-acted.  Director Stephen Hopkins occasionally struggled to maintain a consistent pace (Race is over 2 hours long and feels longer) but he still did a good job filming the scenes of Owens of running and competing.  In the role of Jesse Owens, Stephan James was well-cast.  You not only believed him in the dramatic scenes but he was also believable as a record-setting athlete.  He had some great scenes with Jason Sudekis, who was surprisingly believable in the role of Jesse’s coach.

With all that in mind, why didn’t Race make more of an impression?  I think that, too often, Hopkins allowed the film’s focus to wander away from Jesse and the inner conflict he felt as he won medals for a country where he was treated like a second-class citizen.  There were too many random scenes of Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, playing Olympic officials and debating whether or not to boycott Hitler’s Olympics.  During the second half of the film, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) showed up and we got a few scenes of her trying to film Jesse’s triumph at the Olympics despite the interference of Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbles (Barnaby Metschurat).  All of these extra scenes are supposed to set Jesse’s struggle in a historic context but they’re unnecessary and distracting.  All the context that the film needs can be found in the fact that Jesse was a black man living in America in the 1930s.

For the most part, Race is uneven but occasionally the film delivers a powerful scene or two.  One of the most powerful parts of the film comes when Jesse, after setting world records and being proclaimed as a hero across the world, is informed that he still can’t enter a New York club through the front door.  As well, the scenes depicting Jesse’s friendship with German jump Luz Long (David Kross) are poignant.  In fact, they’re so poignant that I initially assumed that they were fictionalized for the film but actually, Jesse and Luz Long did become good friends during the 1936 Olympics.

Race is uneven but it’s not bad.  Stephan James gives a good performance as Jesse and, if nothing else, the film provides a worthy history lesson.

Batman v. Superman Latest Trailer Drops


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Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has been gathering steam and buzz since it was first announced a couple years ago at San Diego Comic-Con. The film is now just a little over 4 months away from release. The fact that we’re even talking about latest trailers and clips about this film was an accomplishment all on its own.

This was a project that had been talked about for so many years, but never got on track. While some DC fans might decry what I’m about to say I do think they should thank the success of the Marvel Studios-produced films for getting this film on the fast track to being made. It made DC and Warner Bros. realize they weren’t the big bully in the blockbuster block anymore and needed something monumental to catch up.

With Man of Steel dividing comic book fans this film had to be made whether it made sense narrative-wise or not. Another so-so Superman film would not do. So, what better way to juice up the Son of Krypton franchise than by pitting him against DC’s other juggernaut property: Batman.

So, without further ado, here is the latest trailer for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #92: Stealing Beauty (dir by Bernardo Bertolucci)


Stealing_Beauty_PosterI love Italy.

Some of that’s because I happen to be a fourth Italian.  And a lot of it is because many of my favorite filmmakers are Italian.  However, Italy is also place of which I have a lot of wonderful memories.  I spent the summer after my high school graduation in Italy and it was amazing.

Venice was full of sensual mystery (and, to be honest, some pretty obnoxious tourists as well).  Naples was dangerous and exciting.  Pompeii made me feel like I was living history.  Rome was full of handsome men and temptation.  When I walked through the Vatican, my inner Catholic girl suddenly woke up and I just had to stop and stare.  And Tuscany — oh my God, Tuscany!  That summer, as far as I was concerned, Tuscany was the most beautiful and romantic place on Earth.  I can still remember standing in the street of Florence and seeing the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in the distance and, for a minute, I almost felt like I was in a painting.  And I actually started to get light-headed and dizzy, I was so overwhelmed by it all.

(That’s right.  Stendhal Syndrome isn’t just a Dario Argento film.)

At it’s best, the 1996 film Stealing Beauty made me think about that wonderful summer that I spent in Italy.  And, at its worse, Stealing Beauty made me happy that I made that trip with my sisters and not Lucy Harmon.

Lucy Harmon is the main character in Stealing Beauty.  Played by a young Liv Tyler, Lucy is the teenage daughter of a poet who has recently committed suicide.  Lucy is a poet herself.  Among her poems: “The dye is cast/ The dice are rolled/ I feel like shit/ you look like gold” and “I wait/ I wait so patiently/ I’m as quiet as a cup/ I hope you’ll come and rattle me/ Quick!/ Come wake me up.”  That’s right — Lucy writes the same type of crap that I used to write when I was 17 and trying to impress everyone with the depth of my mind.  The only difference is that Lucy is rich and privileged so her poetry doesn’t actually have to be any good.

Anyway, Lucy comes to Tuscany for three reasons.  First off, she wants to be sculpted by one of her mother’s friends, who lives in a villa.  Secondly, she wants to lose her virginity to an Italian boy who, years before, kissed her.  And, finally, she wants to learn the identity of her father, who she believes to be one of the residents of the villa.

The film’s great when it concentrates on the beauty of Tuscany.  It’s a beautiful film to look at and, as its best, it captures the romance of being young and having your entire life ahead of you.  In that way, the film brought back a lot of good memories and it made me want to revisit Italy.

But then, whenever I was fully content to just enjoy the sight of Tuscany, the film had to try to focus on Lucy and the other people living in the villa and … bleh.  For all of their talk about art and political posturing, they all basically came across as being a bunch of self-righteous fakes, the equivalent of the millionaire with a Che poster in his office.  In the end, there are only two adults that you end up liking.  You like writer Alex Parris (Jeremy Irons) because he’s dying and, as a result, doesn’t feel the need to try to impress anyone.  And, despite the film’s intentions, you end up liking the local fascist, Carlo Lisca (Carlo Checchi), because he doesn’t apologize for or try to rationalize his narcissism.  You like Carlo because all of the other characters dislike him.

In the role of Lucy, Liv Tyler is obviously beautiful and gives as good a performance as the script will allow.  At the same time, as a character, Lucy got on my last nerve.  Judging from what we see of her work, Lucy is not a particularly talented poet.  In fact, Lucy appears to often be an amazingly vapid person.  (Her much-commented on virginity only serves to confirm that Lucy is largely meant to be a male fantasy.)  But, at the same time, she’s rich and she’s got a famous mother and, as a result, the film seems to be telling us that it’s not important that she’s not really that interesting.

So, plotwise, Stealing Beauty did not really work for me.  But the scenery was truly beautiful.

Batman v. Superman Finally States It’s Case to the Public


 

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A funny thing happened to the Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer that was set for a release at a special IMAX screening event next week. No one bothered to tell someone with a cellphone not to secretly record the trailer. A lo-res cam version of the first teaser trailer for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was leaked just hours after Disney released the second teaser trailer for the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Warner Brothers scrambled to take down the lo-res trailer and made sure to use their power to threaten with legal stuff if people continued to disseminate the illegal recording. During the 24 hours since the leak someone with a much more cooler head over at WB decided to just go the Avengers: Age of Ultron route (that film’s first teaser was also leaked ahead of a planned event) and release the hi-res version of the teaser trailer instead of waiting days for the planned screening event.

So, here’s the very first teaser trailer as Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment finally make their case that whatever Disney and Marvel can do they can do as well.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is set for a March 25, 2016 release date.