Red Sparrow movie review

For inSing

RED SPARROW

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Thekla Reuten, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey
Genre : Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 1 March 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence and nudity)

The bird motif has followed Jennifer Lawrence in some of her biggest roles. As Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, she became the symbolic ‘Mockingjay’. In the X-Men films, Lawrence plays Mystique, whose given name is ‘Raven’. In this spy thriller, she becomes a ‘sparrow’.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a promising ballerina with the Bolshoi ballet. After a career-ending injury, Dominika is unable to provide for her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson). Dominika’s uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a way out – he is the Deputy Director of the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, and sees spy potential in Dominika.

Dominika is eventually forced to enrol in ‘sparrow school’, where the unyielding Matron (Charlotte Rampling) trains her students in the art of seduction and psychological manipulation. Dominika’s first mission is to ingratiate herself with CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), to learn the identity of Nash’s asset, a mole within the FSB. Diving head first into geopolitical power games, Dominika must stay one step ahead of everyone else, as she decides how far she will go to serve her country.

Red Sparrow is based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent. This film re-teams Jennifer Lawrence with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who helmed the second to fourth Hunger Games films.

Thanks to location filming in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the U.K., as well as Jo Willems’ gorgeous cinematography, Red Sparrow is a stylish picture. This is a film that wants to be classy yet visceral, and there is plenty of graphic nudity and violence. While Red Sparrow is often engaging, dramatic and thrilling, there are times when it’s stuck in a no-man’s-land between all-out spy movie hijinks and sober realism.

Red Sparrow feels like a spy movie, and while its heightened style is part of what draws the viewer in, it also makes the viewer conscious they are watching a spy movie. There are times when it feels like the sex and violence exist to shock the audience, such that they’re distracted from the more formulaic elements of the film. We know there are going to be double-crosses and that characters will play others against each other. While Red Sparrow has a few surprises up its sleeve, it doesn’t reinvent the genre.

Because it is based on a book written by a former CIA agent, Red Sparrow purports to shed light on the techniques that modern-day Russian spies are trained in. The Russian characters tend to have an air of cartoony menace to them, and as such Red Sparrow loses a bit of credibility. Sebastian Hülk’s deadly, sadistic Matorin seems like he’s stepped straight out of a Bond film. There’s also a goofiness to some of the dialogue – addressing her class for the first time, the Matron gravely declares, “The Cold War did not end. It shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces”.

That said, Red Sparrow often works, and star Lawrence is a big part of why. There’s a lot to the character for her to play with. While Lawrence isn’t exactly convincing as a Russian woman (lots of not-great Russian accents in this movie), she gives the role her all, and marshals an intensity quite unlike what we’ve seen from her before.

Dominika is a character who is backed into a corner but masterfully turns power against those who would try to wield it over her. It is fascinating to watch Dominika exercise this jiu-jitsu-like ability, gradually taking back control after it has been completely wrested from her. Dominika’s arc is compelling and is resolved in an exciting, satisfying manner

Schoenaerts is suitably slimy as Dominika’s shifty uncle. While Edgerton is unremarkable as the heroic but flawed American agent, it seems that’s how the character was intended to come off. The dynamic between Dominika and Nate doesn’t go quite how one would expect it to, but standard spy movie tropes are mostly adhered to when all’s said and done.

Charlotte Rampling delivers a deliciously icy performance as the matron. The scenes set in the spy school, in which students are forced to strip and perform other demeaning tasks as commanded, are some of the film’s most uncomfortable and consequently, most interesting. Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons stand around and provide gravitas, which they have no problems with. Mary Louise-Parker’s appearance as the secretary of state to a US senator seems to be a poorly-judged attempt at adding humour to the mix; her scene comes off as awkward and silly.

While Red Sparrow is not as complex and layered as it would like to be and doesn’t offer too much that fans of the spy movie genre haven’t seen before, Lawrence’s performance anchors it. It’s a little too long, but the injections of sex and violence will jolt audiences out of any lulls.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

For F*** Magazine

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2 

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Donald Sutherland
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 17 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

The Mockingjay sings her last in the conclusion of the Hunger Games saga. The nation of Panem is in the throes of a revolutionary war, with Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) continuing to bear the burden of being the symbolic figurehead of the uprising, the Mockingjay. Katniss teams up with a group of her closest allies – including Gale (Hemsworth), Finnick (Claflin), Cressida (Dormer) and Peeta (Hutcherson) – to infiltrate the palace of President Snow (Sutherland) and assassinate him. After an extended period of captivity in the Capitol, Peeta is deeply shaken by the psychological torture he was subjected to and becomes hostile towards Katniss. District 13’s President Alma Coin (Moore) and her right-hand man Plutarch (Hoffman) are counting on this final assault to be the tipping point that allows them to overthrow Snow. As Snow becomes increasingly obsessed with destroying Katniss and putting a stop to the revolution, Katniss realises that as high as the stakes were before, they are ever higher now, with the future of Panem in her hands.
                The expectations are high for the final instalment in the Hunger Gamesfilm series, not just because of the massive following the Suzanne Collins novels and the films themselves have gained, but because the filmmakers went the route of splitting the last book into two films, increasing the build-up for Part 2. Typically, movies that close out a blockbuster series promise colossal, epic battles and a surfeit of spectacle. For both better and worse, Mockingjay Part 2 takes a different route. The emphasis is on the politics, an element which has set the Hunger Games series apart from most teen-aimed properties. From the word “go”, this is an appropriately bleak affair, an unrelenting downer. True, The Hunger Games was never meant to be particularly happy or uplifting, but Mockingjay – Part 2 will alienate or even confuse viewers who aren’t 100% invested in what has come before. Audiences are expected to be familiar with the preceding films and, preferably, the books as well.
                The Hunger Games series has taken a considerable amount of risks that have been rewarded critically and at the box office. After all, the basic premise of the first movie/book is a tournament in which kids kill each other for the entertainment of the masses. Finally overthrowing the tyrannical rule of President Snow should be a rousing triumph, but for a society as far gone as Panem, a quick fix simply won’t cut it. That the film not only acknowledges this but delves into the myriad ramifications of the revolution is admirably mature, if not viscerally exciting. Particularly during the first act, things can be a bit of a slog, and Mockingjay Part 2 struggles to gain momentum. The action sequences, in which Katniss and the District 13 Unit have to navigate booby-trapped stretches of the Capitol and fend off all and sundry threats that are flung at them, feel more perfunctory than truly thrilling.
                Jennifer Lawrence’s ever-rising star has paralleled Katniss’ journey from starving District 12 girl to bearer of the Mockingjay mantle, though we imagine being J-Law in real life is generally more fun than being Katniss. In a way, it’s a good thing that Jennifer Lawrence won’t be playing Katniss indefinitely and that she’s given an opportunity to see the character’s arc through to completion. Even more than in the earlier instalments, Mockingjay Part 2 asks the question “is this too much for one girl to handle?” point blank, answers “yes” and shows us all the ways in which it is too much. In the film’s opening scene, Katniss is trying to speak as she is being tended to by a nurse, after Peeta nearly crushed her windpipe in the previous film. There are many films about “finding one’s voice”, but instead of manufactured optimism, the Hunger Games series serves up unflinching brutality and Jennifer Lawrence’s final bow as one of this generation’s defining heroes is expectedly affecting and stirring.
                We also get a resolution to the love triangle, which director Francis Lawrence tries his darndest to couch as something secondary to the turning cogs of revolution. The wounded, feral quality that Peeta takes on is heart-rending and does give Hutcherson more shades to play, as well as switching up the dynamic between Peeta and Katniss. Gale’s bond with Katniss as a childhood hunting buddy is played up a little more in this one; Hemsworth has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s not an actor with immense range but not too much is demanded from him here.
There is quite literally an army of supporting players, so it is natural that some will get shorter shrift than others. This reviewer did enjoy that the film is packed with badass female characters in addition to Katniss, including Dormer’s Cressida, Patina Miller’s Commander Paylor, Gwendoline Christie’s Commander Lyme, Michelle Forbes’ Lieutenant Jackson, Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason and Moore’s President Coin. Moore is especially fun to watch as we see President Coin making increasingly questionable but decently justified decisions. Elizabeth Banks, clad in increasingly fanciful ensembles, seems to be crying out from all the greyness that surrounds her. Sutherland proves he was the ideal choice for President Snow from the beginning, exuding a deep malice that is several layers past idle moustache-twirling villainy and making us all the more eager to see Snow get his comeuppance.
In an age where series finale blockbusters seem almost mandated to include no-holds-barred clashes of epic proportions, the Hunger Games series’ more cerebral conclusion is welcome. However, if one has a particularly short attention span and isn’t fully immersed in the world of Panem as established by the earlier films, it is possible to become bored and frustrated by the ponderous proceedings. This is sure to be a smash hit (at least until Star Wars invades cinemas), so we hope Lionsgate doesn’t try to futilely stretch things out with spinoffs and a reboot, though, like the fall of Panem, that does seem depressingly inevitable.
Summary: The Mockingjay’s last song is resonant if not especially rousing, the final chapter of the Hunger Games series largely satisfying but at times overwhelmingly downbeat.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

            

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

For F*** Magazine

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Woody Harrelson, Evan Ross, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Gwendoline Christie, Donald Sutherland, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence) 
Run time: 123 mins
It’s time to raise the three-finger District 12 salute and whistle that four-note motif again because another Hunger Games movie is in theatres. Following her actions in the Quarter Quell, Katniss (Lawrence) has been whisked away to the secret stronghold of District 13. Her best friend Gale (Hemsworth), sister Prim (Shields) and mother (Paula Malcomson) are among the survivors from the Capitol’s bombing of District 12 taking refuge in 13. President Alma Coin (Moore), along with Plutarch (Hoffman), is in the midst of staging a revolution, calling on Katniss to become the face of the uprising. Despite being reluctant to after the trauma she experienced in the arena, Katniss assumes the role of the symbolic “Mockingjay”. Peeta (Hutcherson), who couldn’t be rescued, is held in the Capitol and forced by President Snow (Sutherland) to make televised appearances exhorting a ceasefire. Because of this, he is branded a traitor by the revolutionaries, but it only strengthens Katniss’ desire to rescue him and the other victors even more.

            Mockingjay – Part 1 has followed in the footsteps of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises by going the “last book adapted into two movies” route. Both Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Breaking Dawn – Part 1 did a lot of treading water in padding things out. While Mockingjay – Part 1 fares far better than Breaking Dawn thanks to its denser plot, there’s still a degree of disappointment to be had from sitting through two hours of set-up, even if it is pretty good set-up. Introducing audiences to the subterranean District 13, there is the credible sense that this revolution is coming to a head. Moving past the Games themselves, we get to see more of the other districts, including the lumber-producing District 7, and power-generating District 5 with its massive hydroelectric dam. There is an increased sense of scale without it feeling like bloated and empty spectacle. There’s also more of the helicrafts in action, two of which Katniss shoots down with her bow and arrow.

            The film still is character-driven, Jennifer Lawrence returning to her star-making role with more of the drive, indignant determination and just the right amount of vulnerability she brought to the first and second films. Unlike a number of young adult novel adaptations, Mockingjay – Part 1 does a good job at establishing that there is much more to the story and the world than the protagonist’s personal struggles and heartache, without downplaying the importance of that. The premise of the franchise is televised bloodsport in which teenagers kill each other for the entertainment of the elite and to keep the masses in line. The role of media manipulation in shaping the perceptions of the public gets further explored here with the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s Cressida, a Capitol film director who defects to District 13. That the resulting propaganda films or “propos” end up looking like movie trailers is a sly, effective touch without having it go all Starship Troopers on us.

            The politics of The Hunger Games is one of the key components that gives it an edge over other film series aimed at a similar demographic. Julianne Moore retains her stern exterior (looking more than a little like Ysanne Isard from the Star Wars expanded universe) but plays a warmer, kinder authority figure than moviegoers are used to seeing her as. Both skilled actors, she and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman make for believable collaborating revolutionaries – this marks their fourth time co-starring in a movie. The film is dedicated to Hoffman’s memory and while he completed shooting all his scenes for Part 1, some of Plutarch’s scenes in Part 2 will have to be distributed to other characters.

            Much of the emotional content of the first two films was derived from the relationship between Katniss and Peeta and director Francis Lawrence uses the fact that the two characters are separated to generate a good amount of tension and anguish. Peeta being used as the Capitol’s new mouthpiece in his interviews with Ceasar Flickerman (Tucci) is contrasted and compared with how Katniss takes up the mantle of the Mockingjay for District 13. The role of Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is also expanded. It seems director Lawrence is all too aware that there are still detractors who dismiss this series as mopey teen romance, so scenes in which the love triangle is addressed appear sparingly.

            If Catching Fire was analogous to Empire Strikes Back, then Mockingjay – Part 1 is like if Return of the Jedi ended right after the escape from Jabba’s clutches. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but there’s no denying that the climactic sequence, which director Lawrence has said was inspired by Zero Dark Thirty, feels like in belongs in the middle of a movie. Still, fans of the first two films are most likely more than willing to wait a year for the series’ conclusion and there is enough that takes place here to enticingly set the stage for the finale.


Summary: Despite suffering from “Part 1-of-a-two-parter-adaptation-itis”, the politics of Mockingjay and the turning gears of the revolution make this an intelligent, absorbing entry in the series.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong