Ep. 112 – Red Sparrow, I, Tonya on Blu-ray, Oscars post-mortem, and a recap of La La Land live from the San Antonio Symphony

March 6, 2018 by  
Filed under Podcast

This week on The CineSnob Podcast, Cody and Jerrod review the spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” talk “I, Tonya” on Blu-ray, break down the 90th annual Academy Awards, and recap their visit to the San Antonio Symphony’s performance of “La La Land” live.

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Red Sparrow

March 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling
Directed by: Francis Lawrence (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”)
Written by: Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”)

While the French term “femme fatale” can be traced back to the early 20th century, the archetype — a dangerous woman who uses her beauty, charm and sexuality to tempt her lovers into deadly situations — has been around for centuries. From the Greek mythological references of the Sirens, who lured sailors to their watery graves, to Biblical figures like Delilah, whose betrayal led to Samson’s enucleation and ultimate death, the femme fatale has taken on many forms in literature, art and other mediums.

In cinema, however, is when the typified seductress has really shined over the last century. Whether she is defined for audiences by Rita Hayworth as the hair-flipping title character in the 1946 noir “Gilda” or by Scarlett Johansson as an irresistible, ethereal being in the 2013 sci-fi drama “Under the Skin,” male film characters have had plenty to concern themselves over when a potential love interest starts batting her eyelashes or — as Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) does in her new spy thriller — bares all for the uncomfortable assignment at hand.

In “Red Sparrow,” which is adapted from the 2013 novel of the same name by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Russian prima ballerina who experiences a career-ending injury, which puts her sick mother at risk since no job equals no health insurance. In steps Dominika’s slimy, well-connected uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) who forces her to join an intelligence program known as “Sparrow School,” so she can train to become a spy and learn how to weaponize her body and sweet-talk secrets from unsuspecting men. Her main mission: to cozy up to CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is caught up in some Trump administration-level Russian-American relations, and — ahem — persuade him to reveal the identity of a mole with whom he has been working.

Lawrence reteams with filmmaker Francis Lawrence, who directed her in three of the four “Hunger Games” movies, and depicts her provocative albeit exploited character with realism and sexual prowess. Although she’s had a chance to stretch her man-eating muscles in the past as Mystique in the “X-Men” franchise, her role as Dominika is the most audacious of her career and one that she puts some definite enthusiasm behind. Lawrence owns the role as a honey trap and takes it as far as she’s allowed.

The major problem with “Red Sparrow,” however, is the slow-burning script adapted by screenwriter Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”) that desperately wants to be a sexually charged version of a John le Carré story. But where recent films like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “A Most Wanted Man” are absorbing, smartly crafted espionage dramas, “Red Sparrow” only manages to bring the same amount of intrigue in short bursts and does so without making any significant statements about the current political landscape, despite how deeply ingrained the Russian narrative is in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

One of the segments that works is the time Dominika spends inside the Sparrow School, where she is humiliated by a ruthless schoolmarm (Charlotte Rampling) and told that her body now belongs to the state. To call it a nightmare scenario is an understatement, and director Lawrence captures the disturbing nature of the school with authenticity. Actually, his take on the full world Dominika inhabits is noteworthy, too. The film is set in present time, but the Cold War-era ambiance fills each scene with an unsympathetic and disconnected quality that’s as thick as the snow in a Moscow winter.

Still, the film’s deception and manipulation, even while between the thighs of J-Law, is somewhat of a dull affair and one that is running counter to the idea that using sex as an element of female empowerment only works when the character isn’t forced into the position to survive. Sure, the style and skin might be present, but without any sociopolitical thrills, “Red Sparrow” never really takes flight.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

November 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by: Francis Lawrence (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “I Am Legend”)
Written by: Peter Craig (“The Town”) and Danny Strong (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”)

The economically-sound trend of splitting the final chapters of book-to-film franchises into two movies presents a unique—if not always positive—film-going experience. Like the penultimate films in “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series before it, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” doesn’t really feel like a normal movie. It creates a sense of unease as you try in your head to look for typical story beats and plot markers that just aren’t there because, alas, this movie is meant to end with a sense of having been all about building to a climax that we won’t get to see for another year. It can all be a bit disorienting and insulting, but what are you going to do? Wait until both films have been released on DVD and Blu-ray so you can watch them back-to-back so that they make a cohesive whole? Good luck with that.

After her lightning-charged arrow destroyed the arena during the Quarter Quell in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” District 12 tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a symbol of rebellion in the oppressed post-apocalyptic state of Panem. After being rescued from the arena by Capitol turncoat Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated), Katniss is whisked away to the militarized District 13, a grim underground bunker of jumpsuits and cafeterias. Clearly suffering from PTSD and the separation from her would-be lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)—himself a prisoner of the Capitol and a propaganda tool—Katniss is called upon by President Coin (Julianne Moore) to become the Mockingjay, a symbol to unite the Districts in rebellion against the Capitol and the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With the help of Heavensbee, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss will need to overcome her own suffering if the people of Panem have any hope of living free of Snow and the Capitol.

When you can look past the table-setting and sometimes lumpy, drawn-out storytelling, “Mockingjay – Part 1” ventures into some incredibly dark yet intriguing places for a film franchise that, at least on the surface, is aimed at teenagers. The body count is high and the politics of propaganda is a refreshing change from the typical “chosen one” storylines that usually inhabit these YA worlds. Katniss is not valued by Coin for her skills in the arena, but for the televised image she cultivated in the Game—not that anyone should ever doubt her when notching an exploding arrow, though. Scenes of Katniss working with filmmakers to put together rebellion-sowing video clips are the bright spots of the film, creating a much richer world than the movie’s goofy future-animals like mockingjays or tracker jackers ever could. The rebellion is coming. Too bad we have to wait another year for it.

Francis Lawrence – Mockingjay – Part 1

November 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

For filmmaker Francis Lawrence, getting the opportunity to continue making sequels to one of the most successful movie franchises ever was something he hoped for after taking over for “The Hunger Games” director Gary Ross in 2013’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Completing the series with the two-part final film “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” not only gave Lawrence the chance to see the project all the way through to the end, it also allowed him to explore some of the darker themes of author Suzanne Collins’ third book. In “Mockingjay – Part 1,” Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) reluctantly becomes the leader of a resistance against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who has taken Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) and turned him into a propaganda tool for the Capitol.

During an interview with Francis Lawrence this past week, I talked to him about whether or not he thinks waiting an entire year for “Mockingjay – Part 2” is too long, the tough decisions he had to make when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away before production ended, and what theme interested him the most from Collins’ book.

I’m sure because this is such a huge franchise and fans of the books and movies were probably watching your every move, things could get a bit stressful for you as a filmmaker. What was the scariest decision you had to make about these last two “Mockingjay” films?

You know, oddly enough one of the scariest decisions was one that I thought the fans would be appreciative of, which was putting Effie (Elizabeth Banks) in the movie. Effie really doesn’t make an appearance in the book [Mockingjay] until the end. We definitely wanted her to be in District 13 with everybody. We really wanted to incorporate her into this movie. That was a big change from the book. It was scary, but I really thought the fans would like to have Effie there.

There is a scene in the film where Katniss is making a propaganda film, which calls for Jennifer Lawrence to act like she doesn’t know how to act. What kind of direction did you give Jennifer to make her look like a bad actress?

Well, we actually tried [that scene] a bunch of different ways. We all knew it was going to be a scene with levity and humor. We spent two days shooting that scene and really let Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and Jen [Lawrence] improvise quite a bit. We had a huge range in terms of the level of levity in the scenes. We went from super naturalistic where she’s not acting badly at all to scenes where she acted really, really bad. In the editing room I had loads of possibilities. I wanted to make sure the tone of the humor fit the rest of the movie.

What about the scene where Katniss sings the song “The Hanging Tree?” Jennifer said recently that she was not comfortable shooting that scene. Was it just a matter of doing it and getting it over with or was it difficult?

Yeah, she was not happy. But Jen being unhappy is a minor issue in terms of the film. I mean, she knew she had to do it. (Laughs) She didn’t enjoy it. But she has a great voice. She sings in key. She sings in tune. She has a great texture to her voice. We had the Lumineers write the melody from the lyrics in the book. It was a nice, simple song, but it was definitely not her favorite thing.

Actress Julianne Moore said recently that she became very popular with her kids for taking on the role of President Alma Coin. Did you earn any street credit with anyone when you signed on for “Catching Fire” and these last two films?

Yeah, I have a nine year old and an 11 year old. They were just getting to that age where they started caring about movies. I remember they had this school camping trip right around the time I had just gotten the job [to direct “Catching Fire”]. The theme of the camping trip was “The Hunger Games.” This pop phenomenon has swept through and all their friends knew the movie and the books. So, the fact that their dad was making the next one, they thought that was pretty cool.

You have to know waiting an entire year to see how the film ends is going to be torture for hardcore fans of this franchise (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” opens in theaters Nov. 20, 2015). I know you don’t make those decisions, but do you think that is too long?

I don’t think it’s too long. I think one of the benefits of shooting back to back is that we can turn another big movie around that quickly since we’re already working on it. I think longer than a year would be tricky. I think a year is about right. I think it really builds up that anticipation and makes people want to go see it. When the movie comes out, you sort of get saturated by it. I don’t think you’d want to come out too soon [to see the next movie].

Google just came out with a study that says moviegoers who are interested in action movies are more likely to care about who is directing the action movies they go to see than moviegoers who prefer other genres like comedy and drama. If that is true, how would you feel if your name starts being recognized as an action film director? Would you like that or would you rather not be labeled in that way?

I’d like to be known as a director of movies people like. (Laughs) I don’t know if I’d like to be labeled as just an action director. I’ve done different kinds of things. I don’t know if I’d want to be pigeonholed as one type of director.

What did you have to tell actress Natalie Dormer to prevent her from shaving her entire head for her role as Cressida?

Ah, well, she and I had a conversation when we hired her and the first thing she said to me was that she was prepared to shave her entire head. Oddly enough, she and I had the same ideas for the look of her character. We started thinking that maybe she shouldn’t have her entire head shaved. One of my references was my costume designer from “Catching Fire” (Trish Summerville). She has the side of her head shaved. She had this great look. It was perfect for tattoos on the side of her head. I always thought of Cressida having this irreverent, sort of punk-like attitude, so I thought it would work. So, we agreed on shaving only half of her head.

What does it mean to you as a filmmaker to continue working on a franchise with such a strong female hero at the center? Do you think characters like Katniss are too few and far between in movies these days?

Yeah, it’s rare to see a female hero. To be a part of that is fantastic. One of the keys to that is Suzanne Collins writing an amazing story with amazing characters. Then, when you have someone as talented as Jen Lawrence and Julianne [Moore], it makes it really appealing.

We, of course, lost a great actor in Philip Seymour Hoffman this year, who was an important part of this series. What were some of the tough decisions you had to make since he hadn’t entirely finished shooting “Part 2” before he passed away?

Well, honestly, he was almost done with his work. He had two dialogue scenes left – one for “Part 1” and one for “Part 2.” We never thought about doing a digital version of him. He was one of the greatest actors, so to try to digitally recreate one of those performances would’ve been really foolish. So, we rewrote those scenes and gave his dialogue to other actors.

Will his character feel complete when the series is over or do you think it will be obvious that things were reworked in the script?

Yes, he feels completed. I mean, would I rather have had the other two scenes with him in them? Yes, absolutely. But I think his character feels complete.

In the film, we see Katniss struggling to decide if she wants to be a part of this resistance. To me, that showed how war really isn’t just a black and white issue. Was that a key element you wanted to highlight in the film and make moviegoers understand there was more to leading a rebellion than what you see on the surface?

Yes. That is definitely straight out of the pages of Suzanne’s book. It was one of the most appealing things about this movie. Quite honestly, it’s one of the reasons I got involved in these films. It not only shows war, but the consequences of it. I think the theme you’re picking up there is something that is even more explored in the next one. So, when I was asked to do these two films it was really exciting because A) I got to see this [franchise] through to the end and B) I got to work with these sorts of themes. What you just brought up is one of the biggest themes for me. War is not always clear and not always black and white. War is really messy. Even if you feel like a revolution is needed, it’s not going to be pretty.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

November 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
Directed by: Francis Lawrence (“Water for Elephants”)
Written by: Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”)

Unless you’re an unbiased fan of the wildly popular adult-book series “The Hunger Games” written by Suzanne Collins, the sequel to the record-breaking 2012 original film won’t hold much emotional weight. Without a deeper investment in these characters, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” much like the latest “Thor” sequel, was only made for its most hardcore followers.

Exploring much loftier ideas than the first film, “Catching Fire” does give Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) a good enough reason to reprise a role she was born to play.  Lawrence, whose beauty never overshadows Katniss Everdeen’s heroic nature, once again stands apart from the movie script’s unoriginal ideas. The dystopian themes featured in this series might seem new to somebody who has never picked up a science fiction book written in at least the last century, but, unfortunately, “Catching Fire” doesn’t seem all that interested in breaking any new ground.

On what is called a “Victor’s Tour” (think of a TV reality-show tour for “American Idol” contestants), Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are traveling from district to district being touted as the winners of the 74th annual Hunger Games. Unhappy with the way those games unfolded (the duo is pronounced co-champions only after they threatened to kill themselves with poison berries), President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees their win as a threat to the way his government functions.  If someone like Katniss can break the rules, what’s to stop others from revolting against the system?

Putting an end to Katniss’ revolutionary way of thinking couldn’t come at a better time with the 75th annual Hunger Games (The Quarter Quell) about to begin. Established as an All-Star type of reality show, past winners of the Games, including Katniss and Peeta, are forced back into a new arena where they must once again fight to survive against other competitors. This time the to-the-death battle is headed by a new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who shares in President Snow’s thoughts that Katniss is a menace to the status quo.

Much like the first movie, “Catching Fire” takes quite a while to get to the action most mainstream moviegoers not familiar with the books might be most interested in. For a second movie in a franchise like this, there still seems to be a lot of set-up left to do before the last two films are shot back to back in the next couple of years. Unfortunately, much of that set-up is filled with lazy dialogue and plenty of underwritten secondary character that don’t matter much in the big picture. It’s surprising since the screenplay is penned by Oscar winners Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”).

At this point, all that really matters is Katniss. A strong female character like her is rare in movies these days, and Lawrence does an impressive job at portraying her as someone we can all root for. In an age where the Disney princess culture reigns supreme among audiences, it’s nice to see that there’s a fictional character out there that girls (at least tweens) can stand behind. Sure, Katniss might get someone’s attention by shooting an arrow through their chest, but is that kind of PG-13 rated violence really any worse than Cinderella or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or the Little Mermaid finding happiness only after they hook up with their Prince Charming? Just as long as Katniss stays a lot manlier than Peeta (and that damn Gale Hawthorne doesn’t get much screen time), a lot can be said about how “Catching Fire” and the rest of this series can pave the way for more of these roles to find a permanent place in Hollywood.

Water for Elephants

April 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz
Directed by: Francis Lawrence (“Constatine”)
Written by: Richard LaGravenese (“The Bridges of Madison County”)

While it deserves some recognition for creating a visually-pleasing spectacle (credit Oscar-nominated production designer Jack Fisk and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto), the Depression-era melodrama “Water for Elephants” isn’t the charming phenomenon one might’ve imagined based on the popularity of the 2006 historical novel by Sara Gruen from which it’s adapted.

Instead, the film lacks the romantic luster needed between its leads to match the enchanting, saga-like feel of the time.
Brooding as boyishly as ever, Robert Pattinson (“Eclipse”) plays Jacob, a veterinary student who spontaneously hops the rails and joins a traveling circus after tragedy strikes at home. Working his way up the ranks quickly, Jacob is entrusted with the training of the titular pachyderm. His animal instincts invite conflict when he becomes smitten with the circus’ star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who’s also the wife of the heartless ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz). Waltz isn’t as cold-blooded as his Nazi character in “Inglourious Basterds,” but he still runs his circus like part of the Third Reich.

In a small but touching Gloria Stuart/”Titanic”-type cameo, veteran actor Hal Holbrook (“Into the Wild”) gives the film its most tender moments as an elderly Jacob reminiscing about his year under the Big Top.