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

A Bigger Splash

For F*** Magazine

A BIGGER SPLASH

Director : Luca Guadagnino
Cast : Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 125 mins
Opens : 31 March 2016
Rating : M18 (Nudity and Sexual Scenes)
For years, fans have noted an uncanny resemblance between actress Tilda Swinton and the late David Bowie. In this erotic drama, Swinton finally gets to play a rock star, but this is far from a typical paean to the hard and fast living of glamourous rock gods/goddesses. Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a famous singer who is recuperating from surgery on her vocal chords. Marianne and her documentary filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Schoenaerts) are holidaying on the Italian island of Pantelleria. A spanner is thrown in the works of their idyllic getaway by the sudden arrival of music producer Harry (Fiennes), Marianne’s former flame. Harry has his college-aged daughter Penelope (Johnson) in tow. As personalities and egos clash and sexual tensions simmer, our little group isn’t going to sit about all quiet-like, with some ugliness bubbling to the surface against the backdrop of some very beautiful scenery.

            A Bigger Splashis a remake of the 1969 French-Italian film La Piscine (The Swimming Pool), starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. As odd as this comparison will sound, it might be more helpful to describe the film as a dark take on something like Mamma Mia! A very European frankness with regards to sex and nudity is on full display throughout, and this is a film in which the relationships between the characters are fleshed out via their interactions in various contexts, rather than through clunky exposition. However, this is also a film in which nothing much really occurs, with the bulk of it coming off as Italian tourism board-sponsored scenery porn, and the rest of it is porn in the more traditional sense.

There are farcical and tragic moments, with uneasy tonal shifts that seem intentional if not altogether successful. There is so much lounging and lazing about that when something of actual significance to the plot happens at around the one-and-a-half-hour mark, it feels as if the film has suddenly acquired a focus but does not know what exactly to do with it. During a scene in which Marianne and Harry watch a local woman make traditional ricotta, we hear the migrant crisis in Europe being mentioned via the news on TV in the background. We also hear that boats carrying refugees are stranded off the Pantelleria coast. If director Luca Guadagnino is making some statement about rock star privilege in contrast with the lives of the far less fortunate, said statement is at once on-the-nose and very muddled.

This film marks Swinton’s fourth collaboration with Guadagnino, after The Protagonists, Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory and I Am Love. Swinton’s natural mystique lends itself well to the character of a rock star, and Swinton has stated that Marianne is a mash-up of the afore-mentioned Bowie, Chrissie Hynde and P. J. Harvey. Marianne does not speak throughout the bulk of the film, to avoid straining her vocal chords, and it turns out that this is a character choice on Swinton’s part. The actress made the film shortly after the passing of her mother, and the anguish and loss that she conveys as Marianne are palpable and affecting, even if this is far from the flashiest performance Swinton has given.



The task of chewing up that sun-washed scenery falls to Fiennes, who is at his most comically unrestrained here. It is a fiery, energetic performance, with Fiennes putting it across that Harry’s garrulous, hyperactive nature might be a façade hiding some real brokenness. Fiennes gets to perform a goofy yet mesmerizing dance to the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescueand yes, we do get more than a fleeting glimpse of Voldermort’s, uh, wand. The power struggle and competition for Marianne’s affections that exists between Harry and Paul provides the bulk of the film’s tension, with Schoenaerts perfectly serviceable as the “safe”, or “safer”, romantic interest. While Johnson probably won’t want her career to be defined by 50 Shades of Grey, she’s not one to shy away from other risqué material, her Penelope coquettish and aloof. This reviewer thinks the original choice of Margot Robbie might have worked better, though.

Guadagnino had such a good time working on A Bigger Splash that he’s reuniting with the four leads on his upcoming remake of the Italian horror classic Suspiria. There are moments when the film sparks to life, but that only occurs in between long stretches of dilly-dallying across the volcanic island. The talented cast spends most of their time spinning their wheels and this reviewer couldn’t help but be reminded of By the Sea, even though A Bigger Splash is considerably more tolerable than that vanity project. With a setting rife for some deliciously dark goings-on to unfold, A Bigger Splash stirs the pot all too rarely and never comes to the boil.

Summary: Somewhat sexy, somewhat dangerous, beautiful to look at but often pointlessly so, A Bigger Splash’s arthouse-ness overcomes its potential for true intrigue and dark humour.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars.

Jedd Jong 

The Danish Girl

For F*** Magazine

THE DANISH GIRL

Director : Tom Hooper
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, Sebastian Koch
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 7 January 2016
Rating : R21 (Mature Theme)

An adaptation of David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name, The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It is 1926 and Lili, born Einar Wegener (Redmayne), is a landscape painter married to portrait artist Gerda (Vikander). When a model is late, Gerda has Einar stand in for her, wearing the model’s stockings and shoes. This unlocks Einar’s lifelong identification as female, and he begins to cultivate the persona of “Lili”. Gerda’s portraits of Lili attract the attention of the art world and she is invited to stage an exhibition in Paris, and Gerda tracks down art dealer Hans Axgil (Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar’s. Hans’ attraction to Gerda establishes a complicated love triangle as Gerda struggles in supporting Einar’s transition into a woman. Eventually, Lili and Gerda seek the help of Dr. Wanerkos (Koch), who performs a two-part sexual reassignment surgery that is unprecedented and risky but is Lili’s only hope.

            Playwright Lucinda Coxon adapted The Danish Girl and the screenplay made the rounds for a decade before the film finally got made. The subject matter made it something of a hard sell, with Charlize Theron, then Gwyneth Paltrow attached to the role of Gerda opposite Nicole Kidman as Einar/Lili. Tomas Alfredson was initially set to direct, then was replaced with Lasse Hallström before that incarnation fell through. Director Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech and Les Misérablesbrings an awards contender pedigree to the project – it’s a bonus that star Redmayne is fresh off his Oscar win for The Theory of Everything. The film may be called “The Danish Girl”, but just as there was nary a French accent in earshot in Les Misérables, everyone in this movie sounds very English indeed. It can be seen as pandering to Academy voters, who seem to equate Englishness with prestige.



            While first stepping out in public as Lili, Einar worriedly asks his wife “am I pretty enough?” The Danish Girl is a film that does seem to be worried it isn’t pretty enough in a self-conscious manner, but cinematographer Danny Cohen, costume designer Paco Delgado and production designer Eve Stewart, all Hooper’s collaborators from Les Mis, ensure it is quite the pretty movie to look at. Any way one slices it, there was always going to be controversy surrounding the film, and it is incredibly difficult to appease everyone where the hot-button issue of gender identity is concerned. In a way, the period setting is a costume that lends a non-traditional story a more familiar guise, all of this prestige picture classiness a way in for audiences who might otherwise be clutching their pearls at the thought of a movie about a transgender woman.


            This brings us to the elephant in the room: the casting of a cisgender man to play a transgender woman. Transgendered actors are slowly gaining more visibility via projects like Orange is the New Black, but it seems we’re still some ways off from having a trans woman headline a mainstream awards contender film. There’s also the matter of drawing attention and scrutiny, plus the danger of typecasting. More cynically, the Academy loves physical transformations, and Redmayne has already bagged one Oscar after undergoing a physical transformation to play a real person. It’s difficult to talk about but it’s a conversation worth having and we’re trying to take a balanced view. Redmayne put a great deal of thought into the portrayal and spent time with trans women including activist Paris Lees, who gave Redmayne her blessing. “As a trans woman, I don’t think that if and when they make a biopic of my life I would want a cisgender man playing me,” Lees told Out Magazine. “Politically, it makes me groan. But if anybody’s going to do this justice, then I’m happy it’s Eddie. We had a good chat about everything.”

            The hype surrounding Redmayne’s portrayal is worth buying into, because this is an excellent, soul-baring performance. Lili’s emotional journey in coming to terms with her gender identity is eloquently conveyed by Redmayne. When the film is in danger of getting swallowed up by the larger issues at play, his portrayal pulls it back to a remarkably humane sensitivity. Vikander is just as worthy of praise and there is a good deal for her to sink her teeth into with the role of Gerda. This is a woman who sees the man she fell in love with slowly vanish, but her selfless love for him makes her want to see her husband arrive at a place where he is happy and comfortable with himself. Vikander’s performance is at once raw and measured, and if there was any doubt that she is 2015’s biggest breakout star, The Danish Girl erases said doubt once and for all.



            The Danish Girlis based on a fictionalised account of Lili’s life, with most of the characters besides Lili and Gerda created from whole cloth by Ebershoff. As such, both Whishaw and Schoenaerts can sometimes feel like hangers-on in the proceedings, but in addition to Gerda, their characters reinforce just how vital the support of a loved one is in undergoing a transition.

            The Danish Girldoes over-romanticise and simplify Lili’s story a fair bit, side-stepping Gerda’s possible bisexuality and the eventual dissolution of Lili and Gerda’s relationship. The final scene also contains a visual metaphor that is heavy-handed in quite the cringe-worthy manner. However, Lili’s story is an important one to tell and there is considerable talent behind this biopic. The more jaded might dismiss this out of hand as shameless awards bait and it does possess those elements, but above and beyond all that, the genuine emotional resonance of the story rings true.

Summary: While not as challenging and in-depth an exploration of Lili Elbe’s life and times as it could have been, powerful performances and technical polish make this a worthwhile telling of a moving story.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong