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.

Snitch

February 24, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Joe Bernthal
Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh (“Felon”)
Written by: Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”) and Ric Roman Waugh (“Felon”)

Look no further than his current WWE resurgence and the fact that he has major movie roles in the next four consecutive months to tell you that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a popular guy. After making his debut in supporting roles in the early 00’s, and a strange stretch of becoming a family film star, Johnson has now worked his way to regular occurring leading-man status in action-packed films.

“Snitch”  begins with Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) agreeing to receive a package of drugs and hold them for a friend. The box is tracked and Collins is arrested, falsely implicated for drug distribution, and subjected to a mandatory minimum sentencing of 10 years.  To try to lessen his sentence, John Matthews (Johnson) agrees to become an informant for the DEA, a job that becomes more and more dangerous as he is forced to infiltrate the underworld of drug dealers and cartels.

Johnson, who has apparently ditched his recognizable wrestling name “The Rock” in his billing, unspectacularly gets his way through the films deeper moments. Though he has made strides as an actor since his first foray, he still doesn’t quite reach levels of legitimacy during the scenes that call for emotion.  Of course, the script is at fault for some of that.

There are a couple of supporting roles that are pretty good including the ex-con employee role from Joe Bernthal, perhaps best known for his role on TV’s “The Walking Dead.” The best performance in the film goes to veteran Berry Pepper in his role as a DEA agent. Ridiculous goatee aside, Pepper is able to use his experience as a character actor to give gravitas to scenes and pull up the performances of those around him. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast including those actors who play his son, wife and ex-wife are given absolutely nothing to do throughout the duration of the film. They are simply wasted characters.

The most pressing problem with “Snitch” is the cliché, and painfully mediocre screenplay during the first half of the film. Moments of dialogue truly sound like they were constructed for a made-for-TV movie and as a result the actors (especially Johnson) struggle making an impact. One of the biggest issues with “Snitch” lies in the very motives of the protagonist. Director Ric Roman Waugh does not flesh out the relationship between Matthews and his son and despite a few scenes of father and son talking through a jail-cell phone booth, their relationship feels hollow and thin. Though he states his reasons for risking so much over and over again, it is at times difficult to buy into this relationship completely.

The second half of “Snitch” is on a slight uptick, with some mildly entertaining gunplay and action sequences. One thing that can be appreciated is Waugh’s ability to show restraint and not turn the normal everyman Matthews into some murderous badass who is suddenly a combat and strategy expert. Instead, the things Matthews does are (relatively) conceivable and the actions sequences work a little better because of that. That certainly doesn’t mean that these sequences are great, but rather decent enough to keep interest in the film.

Johnson’s presence in the film is a little flat and at times lifeless, which is curious considering Johnson’s infectious charisma is the sole reason that he was able to successfully jump from the wrestling ring to the big screen. The last frame of “Snitch” also takes the opportunity to make a social commentary statement on the war on drugs in the United States, which agree or disagree with the point, is a little annoying in its own right. Throughout the film, the messages are mixed and the plot details are often flimsy. Ultimately, “Snitch” ebbs more than it flows and the film turns out to be a forgettable addition to “The Rock’s” repertoire.

Revolutionary Road

December 28, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon
Directed by: Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”)
Written by: Justin Haythe (“The Clearing”)

Married with a house and a mortgage and 2.5 kids. It might sound like the standard version of the American Dream for any conventional couple, but for the characters of Richard Yates’s best-selling novel, it is their prison.

In “Revolutionary Road,” directed by Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (their first film together since 1997’s “Titanic”) give life and discontentment to Frank and April Wheeler, a seemingly happy husband and wife living in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-1950s.

It’s a peaceful facade from the outside, but like Mendes’s “Beauty,” there are unseen thorns under this bed of roses. Although they seem like the perfect couple to their friends, Frank and April are miserable. Frank is stuck in a job in office sales and having an empty affair with a naïve young girl at the company, while April, who once dreamed to become an actress, is trapped at home caring for her two children and making the best of a life she finds unfulfilling.

Despite the Wheeler’s marriage coming to an obvious end, April believes it can be saved if they just had a change in scenery. One night, she spontaneously proposes to Frank that they pack up and move to Paris to start over. She sweetens the deal by telling him that she will be the one to work and provide for the family while he discovers what it is he wants out of life. The plan sounds illogical, but Frank and April know that if it doesn’t work out their marriage won’t survive by simply “playing house” and accepting their apathy for each other as natural relationship wear-and-tear.

Through emotionally draining and depressing scenes, DiCaprio and Winslet scrape away at each other until both become fragile and feel worthless. Both are astonishing in their roles. The X-factor in this devastating story comes from supporting actor Michael Shannon, who plays “certified lunatic” John Givings, the manic son of one of the Wheelers’ neighbors who cuts the couple down to size and expresses opinions to them as if he was reading their minds. He talks to the Wheelers unlike anyone has ever dared to before. At first, the his candidness is appreciated, but when John finds his way into the heart of their problems, the confrontations become frightening.

Just as Frank and April keep each other on the brink of madness so will “Revolutionary Road” do to the audience as they watch the couple refuse to resign from life. Scored by “American Beauty” composer Thomas Newman and shot by “No Country for Old Men” cinematographer Roger Deakins (both should get Oscar nods), small town suburbia becomes a story of psychological survival between two self-delusional lovers backed into a corner.