The Cold War-worthy spy thriller Red Sparrow is a misfire that doesn’t seem to be able to commit to what it wants to be. It wants to be provocative but serious; however, it lacks the substance to be serious and lacks the conviction to be provocative. It lands in a middle ground between the sleek genre fun of Atomic Blonde and the understated paranoid realism of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By landing in the middle zone, Red Sparrow is that rare boring movie plagued by untapped potential.
Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a classically trained Russian ballerina that suffers a gruesome injury. Her leering uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialize in seducing their targets. “Whore school,” as Dominka terms it, is run by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who methodically trains her recruits by stripping away every ounce of fear, shame, and defiance. Their bodies belong to the state now, she says, and they will be put to good use for Mother Russia. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is an American spy working in Europe who tries to convince Dominika to switch sides, to take refuge in the United States. Dominika’s superiors order her to get what she can on Nash, find their secret contact, and eliminate them both.
Firstly, Red Sparrow is far too long and far too leisurely paced at a bladder-unfriendly 140-minutes. When things do get interesting, the overall slow pacing has a tendency to sap whatever momentum was starting to emerge. The entire first act should have been condensed down into an opening ten minutes rather than stretching out into 30-some minutes. We don’t need a full half-hour explaining what Dominika’s life was like before her new life as a deadly state-sponsored seductress. We don’t need all that time to see her life as a ballerina, her life caring for her sick mother, and her hesitancy with her first mission before she’s roped into fully accepting her fate. I don’t need this much convincing that her life was better before or that she was trapped into this decision. I don’t care that Lawrence studied ballet for four months. It’s not integral and it’s a deadly start to a story. Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and said, “I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!”
Another problem is that the parallel storyline about Nash and the Americans is far less interesting. Every time the movie jumps to his perspective, you can feel the movie stalling. A U.S. spy who is pushing against his own brass and the politics of the agency can’t compete with a woman who is thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous missions that test every physical and psychological boundary she knows. When Nash and Dominika cross paths, he finally starts to justify his placement. Much like the delayed first act, though, the extra time setting up his life before he was important was not time well spent. Their relationship together is mean to appeal to Dominika to convince her to flip allegiances. They don’t feel like they really connect, and part of that is the lackluster chemistry between the actors. The emphasis on their romantic relationship is even more moot because Dominika’s real motivation is revenge. She didn’t need a handsome, doe-eyed American man for that to happen.
Where Red Sparrow does work is with its unique, high-pressure, destabilizing training environment. There’s a prurient appeal when it comes to watching the training program for assassins who must strip everything away and use their bodies as a weapon. This is where the film is at its most interesting and its most sensational as far as use of genre elements. There is an uncomfortable amount of stark sexual violence depicted in the movie. I lost track of the number of times Dominika is raped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or assault is attempted upon her. I don’t feel like these moments of sexual violence are glamorized or designed for base titillation; it’s a window into the harsh reality these women face. They have been robbed of their agency, their very sex weaponized. There’s a fascinating story to be told from that perspective and the trials and tribulations within “whore school” are harrowing, shocking, and always intriguing, which makes it even sadder when the filmmakers try and posit an arty sheen of self-seriousness. This is a movie about training spies to seduce the enemy and then prove their skills. This is a movie where the head of the spy school runs a play-by-ply analysis on a student’s use of a handjob. This is not going to be John le Carre, and that’s fine. Rather than embrace its inherently trashy side, Red Sparrow tries to stay above the icky stuff, while still indulging in a heaping helping of blunt sexual violence. It’s truly strange. It’s like the filmmakers felt they were making something sober and thoughtful and didn’t want to taint their award-caliber production with too much emphasis on the thing that makes it most interesting. And then instead they threw in a lot more sexual violence, because that’s also serious, and that’s the kind of thing serious movies do to be serious.
Lawrence (mother!) is once again a strong anchor for the audience, even if her Russian accent falters from scene-to-scene. This is a very different role for Lawrence and requires her to simultaneously put much of herself on display physically while finding ways to hide the inner life and thinking of her character from the audience. There’s an interesting character here buried under layers. After her accident, Dominika viciously injures her dance partner and his new leading lady, and it previews the cruelty that Dominika is capable of. Much of the press in the lead up has focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity, and it’s there, okay, but it’s never really emphasized. There is one sequence in particular where she disrobes and taunts her would-be rapist to try and ravish her available body, humiliating him, and it’s one of the few scenes where Dominika turns her body around as a tool of empowerment. Granted, it’s within the prism of a school that’s practically state-run sex slavery, so let’s not get carried away with larger feminist implications. Lawrence keeps the audience guessing scene to scene as she transforms from setting, slipping into different identities that suit her, thinking on her feet, and being, frankly, adult.
There are a slew of good supporting actors tasked with saying ridiculous and foreboding things, like Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress of “whore school” and Jeremy Irons as a high-level Russian spymaster. What really catch the attention are the accents. We have a group of actors from the U.S., Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany portraying Russians, and with Edgerton, an Aussie portraying an American. As you might expect, the Ruskie accents can be a bit thick and obviously phony at times.
It’s not too difficult to see the kind of movie that Red Sparrow could have been. It even previews it from time to time, providing a glimpse into an alternative version of the movie that decides to take ownership of its more sensational, sexualized elements with genre pride. Red Sparrow feels like an out-of-time throwback to the erotic thrillers of the go-go 90s. I mean does Russia even need to train sexy assassins any more in the information age where a troll farm and some Facebook ads can get the job done? Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games movies) has a controlled, precise Fincher-like visual acumen that gives the film a sleek and sterile allure to the spy shenanigans. It’s a nice-looking movie to watch, but without a better story, let alone a verdict on tone, it’s a nice-looking movie that runs self-indulgently too long. Consider it a screensaver you forgot was still going on but with Jennifer Lawrence nudity.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two may be the bleakest Young Adult-adaptation ever put to film. It’s a franchise that began with the televised spectacle of children killing children, so it’s never exactly been the cuddliest environment for our emotions. This is a conclusion that is overwhelmingly dark and pushes the boundaries of the mainstream PG-13 ratings. If you’re expecting a happy ending, look elsewhere.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the face of the revolution between the Capitol and the thirteen districts of Panem. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been returned but he is recovering from intense brainwashing from the Capitol. He doesn’t know whether Katniss is a friend or foe. The fight is now being taken directly to the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The cagey leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to stay behind with the members of her propaganda team. Katniss sneaks off to the front lines of conflict with her District 12 pal/potential love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The Capitol’s gamemakers have designed a series of fiendish surprises for the rebels on every block. While Katniss and her team are behind the fiercest fighting, she is still a high-profile target sought for prompt elimination.
Mockingjay Part Two doesn’t hold back when it comes to the ugly realities of war, namely the innocent casualties in the pretext of an ends-justify-the-means pragmatism. I was reminded of World War II stories and photographs as Katniss and crew stumble through the bombed-out ruins of Capitol neighborhoods. There’s something eerie in the silence amidst miles of rubble. In Part One we saw similar carnage with Katniss’ home district, incinerated by Snow, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend that only one side of this conflict suffers. It’s not exactly a cutting edge commentary on the atrocities of war but it’s still appreciated. Put simply: plenty of bad things will happen and others will attempt to justify these bad things, and at one point that includes the knowing slaughter of innocent children as a political gambit (for you book readers, the body count remains the same. Sorry if you were hoping for a reprieve for certain characters). The series has explored the nature of trauma and nobody gets out free. When Katniss is making her way to the Capitol, it can be easy to forget all the prior character work animating her decision-making. When a Capitol loyalist points a gun at her head and asks for a reason he shouldn’t kill her, she says, “I don’t have one.” In a sense, that can be looked upon as lazy screenwriting or, and I’ll give the movie the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps acknowledging the realities of entrenched conflict when it comes to class warfare.
The attention to social and political commentary has helped give The Hunger Games a bit more maturity than the rest of its YA ilk who often rely upon simplistic oppressed/oppressor conflicts that naturally fall into authority vs. individuality. I appreciate that the filmmakers have followed author Suzanne Collins’ approach to human conflict, which doesn’t dabble in black and white but a larger series of grays (50 shades of them? I’m sorry). This intelligence has given the franchise a depth that could be easily ignored, either by audiences looking for their next fix or studio execs that demand dumbing things down. Part Two forgoes the political gamesmanship for more traditional action suspense sequences, several of which are quite entertaining. There’s an underground chase with snarly mutants that is terrifically teased out suspense-wise. I do appreciate conversations started on how exactly one moves on from tyranny and how easy it is to follow in the same footsteps in the name of justice. However, if you don’t predict where Katniss’ final arrow is going, then you aren’t paying attention to the lessons on recrimination being underlined by explicit on-the-nose dialogue.
There are a few improvements including finally making Peeta an interesting character. He was the noble, nice guy, the somewhat boring conscience for Katniss, but after being returned from the Capitol’s brainwashing, he’s struggling to identify what is real and what is false. It’s still hard to believe that Coin would allow his inclusion on Katniss’ team making its way to the Capitol that is until you remember that Coin also sees Katniss as a political threat for post-war leadership. The love triangle has long been the least interesting aspect to the entire Hunger Games series and part of this falls upon the character of Peeta, who, removed from the manufactured romantic narrative for the cameras, has struggled to be ore than a weak link. Here he can be a threat at any moment, triggered by whatever daunting stimuli that may make him slip back into psychosis. He becomes a ticking time bomb and something far more risky than a romantic alterative. When Peeta becomes a “bad boy” is when he finally becomes worthy of our attention.
If Mockingjay Part One was all protracted build-up to the climax, then Part Two is all climaxes, and yet given the lugubrious allowances afforded by filling the running time of two separate movies, the movie is oddly anticlimactic as well. We’ve been waiting for the confrontation between Katniss and Snow for three whole movies, and Part Two picks up immediately after where Part One ended, and yet we’re still made to wait. Coin wants Katniss to still be primarily a propaganda tool and stay miles behind the front lines, which causes more of Katniss chaffing against authority like she does. Once she does get to the gates of the Capitol, the movie follows a familiar deadly games setup, this time in a more open terrain but the basics are the same: Katniss and crew have to battle a series of deadly booby-traps to reach their goal and kill the bad guy. In a sense, the plot mechanics are similar to video game stages needing to be cleared. It’s a setup that predictably picks off the more expendable members of Team Katniss One, though I’ll give them credit for spreading out the sacrifices. The losses would hit harder if we actually cared about any of these characters on a personable level. Oh well. I also could have used more screen time for many of the supporting actors, notably Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jenna Malone, Natalie Dormer, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This is the last we’ll ever see of Hoffman on screen, and that fact made me quite melancholy by the end.
With the games long gone and the revolution at hand, The Hunger Games has always had some difficulty figuring out how to fill the space before the inevitable showdown with President Snow. In Part One we were mostly stationed in the bunkers of District 13 while we watched the other districts revolt. Like Katniss, we’ve been itching to get to the front lines, especially after Part One’s more plaintive pacing. Once we get to the action it’s more like mop-up duty, which robs the movie of some sense of satisfaction, which turns into a key theme. With the games we had the veneer of “paying” roles as media manipulation for survival, and with Part One we had the study of propaganda. With Part Two, it’s all dour action. I hope viewers aren’t expecting a fantastic finale between Snow and Katniss and their collective forces because then you shall be disappointed. The filmmakers, hewing very close to the novel, have the conclusion to the revolution play out in more realistic and grounded terms, which add points for realism and relevance, but it does detract from some sense of overall satisfaction.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has guided the franchise with sturdy skill and a keen eye for visual arrangements, but if there’s one significant visual complaint I have it’s that these movies are too damn dark. I’m not talking thematically, as I’ve already explained above, but simply from a light level. These movies are just hard to see. Lawrence seems to favor low-light environments to create an ambivalent mood. That’s fine, but I’d also like to see what’s happening on screen. In the last movie we spent a majority of our time in dank underground bunkers, but Part Two is an outdoors kind of picture, so why is it still so hard to distinguish what’s happening?
With the approaching end of The Hunger Games (until Lionsgate milks more money from its lucrative cash cow) it’s appropriate to take stock of its legacy. No other YA franchise has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist like The Hunger Games, but its ultimate legacy will probably be cementing the once promising young actress Jennifer Lawrence firmly into the upper echelon of Hollywood. In the time since our first foray to Panem, Lawrence has won an Oscar, been nominated for another, and proven to be one of the hottest stars on the planet, the kind of actress that esteemed directors are fighting to work with and studio heads want to tap as their lead. Much like Katniss’ meteoric rise to renown, Lawrence has become her own version of the Girl on Fire. She has been better than the Hunger Games movies for some time, and yet Lawrence hasn’t failed in her primary duty to provide an anchor for the audience. Her gritty, conflicted, and commanding performances in the franchise have been a unifying resource for audiences and a reminder of her considerable talents. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two brings to a close a massively successful film franchise and an important chapter in the ascendancy of Ms. Lawrence. It’s thrilling, bleak, and inhabits most of the hallmarks that have come with the Hunger Games films, though in somewhat less supply to make way for the onslaught of action climaxes. There’s more anticlimax then you’d expect, and I credit the filmmakers for sticking with it even at the detriment of the experience. Mockingjay Part Two does enough to end the franchise on an appropriate if somber note. I’ll see everyone at the proposed theme park (seriously, look it up).
Nate’s Grade: B
Would you believe at no point does the film Water for Elephants come close to explaining its title? I have never read the best-selling 2007 novel, where I’m sure it’s given some glancing explanation; so allow me to thus pontificate. Rosie the elephant is given tubs of whiskey at several points in the movie, which she happily laps up thanks to her prominent proboscis. So does that mean that the “water” for elephants is whiskey? If that’s the case, then this is really a tale of dangerous enabling. But then again, how do you tell a four-ton pachyderm that she’s cut off?
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is one exam away from becoming a licensed vet from Cornell in 1931 when he’s delivered some tragic news. His Polish immigrant parents died in a car accident. Distraught, Jacob runs away and hops onto a passing train, stumbling upon a crew of circus performers. The train belongs to the Benzini Brothers circus, led by the fiery August (Christoph Waltz). He’s about to be thrown off the train when he panics and screams that he’s a vet. August hires the kid as the team’s newest vet and Jacob finds animals that are in bad shape and pushed to their limits. He recommends a mercy killing for the main attraction, a white horse that the boss’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), performs upon. He takes some initiative and puts the horse out, despite August’s wishes. Lucky for them all, they find a new star attraction – Rosie the elephant. Robert doesn’t know the first thing about elephants, or “bulls” as they’re referred to by performers, but he’s tasked with getting the creature ready to perform or else everyone will be destitute. The man has a way with pachyderms, and the Benzini Brothers experience a windfall of new business, looking to take on Ringling Brothers. But the whole time, Jacob is making moon eyes at the boss’s wife, despite everyone telling him at every turn not to.
The biggest issue this movie has is that the trio of main characters all feel like they exist in separate movies. There is zero chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon, further dampening their lukewarm romance. Robert is a character defined by being young and having a moral center. He’s not a person so much as an alternative. Marlena is the damsel very distressed, and Witherspoon plays her part all in all slow cock-eyed glances. If I had to pick one of the three, I’d choose to go with August’s version of the story just because he’s a more interesting character than our do-gooding Jacob. August is a huckster who needs to take care of a caravan of drifters and sell them to the public as the stuff of dream and legend. He has some charisma, he’s constantly leveraged against debts, and he is pressured to keep things afloat and to keep people from mutinying. This is beyond the heyday of circuses, so he knows that too many shows with too few people means that his troupe will be picked apart by circus carpetbaggers. You actually start to empathize with him at turns, and then he goes off and beats animals or his wife and that’s that. August is an interesting, vulnerable, flawed character, and he’s given the thankless role of being setup as sneering villain. I would have rather watched August try and keep his deteriorating circus together than watch another tired romantic triangle.
The romance that so much rides on is about as sure-footed as a drunken elephant. Part of this is the failure of Pattinson to deliver a performance that doesn’t feel wooden and artificial, as if he’s posing more than acting. But the romance, which dominates the film’s narrative, is given such scant reasoning that it expects the audience to simply fill in the blanks. He’s a young, good-looking guy who loves animals. She loves animals. Her husband is a jerk, so what’s the problem? Naturally, she’d just run to whatever available catch she could find to escape her hell so anything that delves into more character detail would be a waste of time, right? The movie seems to think so. The love triangle all inhabit very rigidly defined parts. Just because a woman is married to a nasty guy doesn’t mean I instantly want her to get together with just any alternative. Sure this lady deserves to be treated better, but just because a film presents “Option B,” and that option happens to set teenage girls aflutter, doesn’t mean I’m rooting for “Option B” just because it’s not “Option A.” That’s not enough for me to make a satisfying romance, but that’s all Water for Elephants has its aim set on. I need more effort, movie. It’s no surprise that the romantic moments are the weakest parts of the film.
The real star of the movie is Rosie the elephant. She’s a natural performer and she’s got more presence than Witherspoon. I needed more moments with Rosie. After a somewhat boring first act, I started wishing that Rosie would replace someone in this dull love triangle. Imagine how much more interesting this movie would be if it was the heartbreaking story of one man, on woman, and one elephant. Maybe Jacob likes fat-bottomed girls. For animal lovers, there are some wince-inducing sequences of animal cruelty, mostly at the hands of the temperamental August.
The very opening sets the story up for a colossal disaster in the end, and the fact that we are not delivered disaster is a disaster of storytelling (too much?). I’ll try and keep the spoilers in a general sense without going into specifics. The film is bookended by the framing device of Old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) leaving his nursing home to see a circus and tell his life’s story. During his conversation with a circus leader (Paul Schneider), the young man is taken aback when Old Jacob reveals he was apart of the Benzini Brothers troupe when “it” happened. We’re told that it’s like the third biggest circus disaster in history and it has reverberated through decades. I’m set up for something memorable. I’m set up for a tragic ending, likely involving Marlena so that their love will forever have that tinge of unrequited longing. Then when we do eventually head to our big moment in the big top, well it’s far from memorable. Once you assess the ending, you realize that there is very little to make it number three on history’s lists of circus-related mayhem. If this stuff registered as number three, what the hell was number four? A clown catching his hair on fire? And then the movie carries on to some ludicrously happy ending, which seemed tonally inappropriate given the mood of the film and the poorly written romance between Jacob and Marlena. I was prepared for something operatic and terrible, and skimping out on that after an exasperated setup makes me feel hoodwinked, like listening to August bark about the greatest sights and sounds imaginable when they’re all just a trick. Something tells me that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You) was not intending to add some meta commentary on how his story is built for dissatisfaction.
Water for Elephants is a watered-down romance that flounders thanks to three different actors acting like they’re in three different movies. Also, it doesn’t help your romance when so little work is put into making young people fall in love. There are fascinating circus-related tidbits that make me wish the movie was more Depression era circus drama than Depression era circus romance. It’s a handsome enough movie from a technical standpoint, and it has some points of interest and some interesting characters, but its shackled to such a weightless and naïve love story. This movie was described by many as an “old fashioned” kind of film, and generally that can be construed as a warning signal. When people dub something “old fashioned” it can tend to mean “boring except to older people.” It just so happens that my screening of the film was an open caption screening, which attracted dozens of our nation’s elderly and hearing impaired. I didn’t so much mind having grown up with subtitled foreign films. But one delightful accident of seeing this open captioned screening was that they captioned everything. Every sound, every offhand piece of dialogue that would ordinarily go unnoticed and undetected. So now I got to see, as subtitle form, such discoveries as Guy in Background saying, “Hey pick that up,” and Other Guy in Background responding, “Okay. Put it where?” It was more exciting than what was going on between Jacob and Marlena. Now let’s get that elephant drunk!
Nate’s Grade: C