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
American Made is a movie that floats by on the sheer enjoyment of Tom Cruise’s charismatic, devil-may-care performance as Barry Seal, a man who flew secret missions for the CIA, Colombian drug cartels, and Nicaraguan contras. It’s an appealing story with fun anecdotes of a scoundrel playing all sides against each other. Seal is unrepentantly without introspection and is simply having the time of his life. Under Doug Liman’s direction and Cruise’s sly performance, the movie flies by on good vibes until its inevitable crash once Seal cannot get out of the mess he’s made for himself. The film doesn’t have much in the way of depth or commentary on Seal’s actions or the CIA’s. Domnhall Gleeson (The Revenant) plays the enigmatic CIA handler who brings Seal into action and plots behind the scenes, and I wish he had a larger presence in the film. His character is the closest the film approaches legitimate satire. Other supporting characters leave little impression or have such limited roles, from Sarah Wright’s complicit wife, to Caleb Landry Jones’ bizarre screw-up of a brother-in-law, to Jesse Plemons as a small-town sheriff, to Jayma Mays as a frazzled prosecutor who can’t take down Seal. The near-escapes and comical skirting of legal consequences provide enough interest without making the film seem episodic. I’m even struggling to say more about the film because that’s how quickly it evaporates from memory. American Made isn’t going to make much more than a fleeting impression, but it’s fun while it lasts and a reminder about how entertaining movies can be when paired with a magnetic actor cutting loose.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.
Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.
With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.
The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.
There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.
The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.
There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.
The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.
With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Atomic Blonde is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), a title I doubt many were that familiar with. Charlize Theron was. She snapped up the option rights before it was published and saw it as a vehicle for herself to cut loose, have fun, and show off her affinity for fight choreography thanks to her background in dance. If you don’t walk out of this film with an uncontrollable crush on Theron, then I don’t know what movie you saw, my poor friend.
Set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the wall going down, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is working undercover for her Majesty to uncover who is killing British agents in East Germany. Her local contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a black-market kingpin and popular mover and shaker. One of his contacts (Eddie Marsan) has committed secret spy files to memory and wants an escape to West Germany. He’s even gotten the attention of other spooks, including French intelligence agent Delphine Lassalle (Sofia Boutella), who gets intimately close to Lorraine. The smuggling of the contact goes bad, lives are lost, and Lorraine has to explain to her superiors (Toby Jones, John Goodman) what went wrong and who is secretly the murderous traitor.
This film could have just as easily been re-titled Sexy Charlize Theron: The Movie. It is a two-hour celebration of the actress and her many formal gifts. Watch her look sexy in this sexy outfit (i.e. every outfit Theron wears or doesn’t wear). Watch her look sexy strutting down a hallway in slow mo. Watch her bathe in ice. Watch her dispatch bad guys with ease, sexily. And then there’s the sapphic romp with Boutella (The Mummy), which is just an explosion of sexy that might be too much for the weaker-hearted audience members to handle. A female friend of mine used to refer to Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s as “walking sex,” a woman that simply oozed sex appeal with her every glance and movement. I think that term deservedly applies to Theron in Atomic Blonde. The surface-level pleasures are rampant, from the 80s chic clothing, to the pumping New Wave soundtrack, to the very stylized way people take long dramatic drags from their cigarettes, the movie exudes a sense of cool with every frame. There is plenty to ogle, and that includes the casual nudity of a 41-year-old Theron, who has plotted this showcase role for years as an unapologetic badass statement and maybe the nonchalant nudity is part of that (“You think women over 40 are unattractive? Well take a good gander at this, Hollywood”).
The film has style to spare but thankfully it also has enough substance to match, and by that, I mean its depiction and development of action. Coming from David Leitch, one of the co-directors of the John Wick franchise, I expected very fluid and well-choreographed action sequences, and Atomic Blonde delivers. I am happy that we have moved away from the Bourne-style docudrama approach of the jangled edits and gone the other direction, treating action sequences like the dance routines they are and allowing an audience to fully take them in and appreciate the skill and artistry. The showstopper everyone will be talking about is an extended fight sequence that closes out the second act. Lorraine ducks into a tenement building and gets into a bruising fight with several goons. This sequence goes down several floors, careens into empty rooms, and eventually ends up in the middle of a speeding car trying to make a desperate escape. It’s filmed to be one long take and the sequence is exhilarating and only becomes more so with every passing minute.
Admirably, Atomic Blonde also brings a sense of realism to all its action. As the fight continues, Lorraine becomes understandably fatigued, as do the baddies. She is not impervious to their attacks. She’s gutsy but still vulnerable, still human. You feel the blows and the intense duration, which makes me marvel all the more at Theron’s sheer balletic grace when it comes to her ass-kicking capabilities. Having an experienced, accomplished fighter opens up the complexity of the action sequences. The stunt work is a consistent joy in this movie and what will make it stand out amidst the pack.
The only major gripe I have with the film is its rather convoluted spy plot. The Cold War as well as East Berlin is just a backdrop for the cool shenanigans. The movie toys with spy movie pastiches but clearly it only amounts to genre window dressing. It’s almost on par with the music, used to evoke a mood and not much more. It feels like even Atomic Blonde recognizes this and just blurts out more nonsensical “who can you trust?” plot mechanics to get to the next sexy set piece. If you don’t already know who the eventual traitor will be by the end of the first act, you haven’t been doing the math. The communist bad guys are an unremarkable lot but they do make for solid punching bags.
The opening scene sets up the death of a British spy as a personal blow to Lorraine (she kept a photo of the two of them in her dresser drawer) but he’s quickly forgotten and never mentioned. His assassination doesn’t even stir any simple impulses of revenge. The non-linear framing device also seems designed just to skip ahead to the good stuff or provide a break in the action where Lorraine’s superiors can provide disapproving, fuddy-duddy commentary about her blasé behavior. The plot is a bit too needlessly complicated and muddled for what the film needs. It’s as if screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) was given the edict to make things obtuse with paranoia and intrigue just long enough. There’s an extended coda that feels like a reshoot; however, it also has several significant plot revelations that completely change your understanding of the characters.
Atomic Blonde is the kind of movie that knocks you around and overpowers you with its spiky attitude. At its best, the movie pulsates with a buzzy rush of adrenaline, setting up dangerous dilemmas for Lorraine to take out with her fists, feet, and any old thing lying around. Her ingenuity during the fight sequences adds a welcomed degree of unpredictability and satisfaction, and it makes the locations become an integral part of the fight choreography as well. There’s a reason I’ve been expending most of my review on the action sequences and sense of style, because there isn’t much more to Atomic Blonde. It’s all retro fashions, stylish artifice, an overeager soundtrack, and lots of too-cool bravado, but unlike say Suicide Squad, it actually pulls it off. It’s not posturing when it works. Theron is a absurdly convincing as a super sexy super agent, and it feels like they dropped her into a James Bond story (with Sofia Boutella as the Bond girl). The added realism and long takes allow the film to feel even more viscerally kinetic. If this is the start of a Charlize Theron franchise then I say we are living in the sexiest of times.
Nate’s Grade: B
Some of the greatest stories are so bizarre and unpredictable that they could only come from real life, and documentaries are a terrific showcase for the strange-but-true realities of our world that have escaped notice. Two of the more fascinating documentaries of 2016 are also two of its most strange films that have to be seen to be believed. Tickled begins as an innocuous look into amateur competitive tickle videos online, an obvious minor fetish industry that swears by its integrity as legitimate sport. A curious New Zealand journalist is then beset by homophobic harassment, personal attacks, and legal threats, which only makes him more determined to unravel the source of these tickle videos. It reminds me of 2010’s Catfish except this story actually has the stakes that film ultimately lacked. It’s an investigative piece of journalism that involves working through false identities, spooked video participants that have had their lives ruined from persecution, interviewing lackeys on hidden video, and ultimately discovering the true source behind the web of lies, a man that uses his privileged class position and wealth to intimidate and exploit others. It’s a movie that starts off goofy and just becomes darker, more serious, and downright sad by the end, leaving you with the sinister impression of the danger of a powerful bully using Internet anonymity to satisfy his repressed kinks including emotional sadism. Tickled could be better as it feels disorganized and padded out, including an extended trip to another tickle fetish vendor. The ending leaves something to be desired as well and will send you online to scour for more information. Still, the story is naturally intriguing and the filmmakers don’t mess up a good thing by allowing the curiosity to grab an audience.
The same can be said for The Lovers and the Despot, a film that leaves you wanting more just because its own true-life tale is so engrossing and deserving of further examination. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was so frustrated with his country’s film industry that he kidnapped his favorite South Korean filmmaking husband and wife team, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok. The couple made over 17 films for the dictator and had to earn his trust before they could plot an escape. This is a fascinating story about the power and entitlement others feel of art, with Kim Jong-il desperate for world recognition through the cinematic arts. He gave the couple a blank check and unrivaled artistic freedom, enough that some in South Korea suspect that Shin defected to the North rather than having been kidnapped. There are astonishing gets for this doc, namely Kim Jong-il’s actual audio conversations secretly recorded by Choi Eun-hee. When the couple defected to an American embassy, the U.S. government had never heard the dictator’s voice before, and here it was thanks to an actress. It feels like there’s so much more to this story that’s missing, either from the interview subjects’ reticence to share too much or the filmmakers reluctance to embrace more of the Cold War paranoia thriller trappings the story can veer into. There are some insights into the despot but they mostly fall into daddy issues. The omnipresent threat of the dictator is best visually showcased during the funeral marches for his father and then eventually Kim Jong-il himself. The masses are in a state of hysterical grief that crosses into parody, until you realize that these people are adopting a false front to protect themselves and their families just like Choi. Those not “properly grieving” could be punished, and so the miles of people wailing and hyperventilating becomes a chilling symbol of the hold one man has on the country even after death. The Lovers and the Despot is a fascinating story of artists held hostage by their biggest fan, who happened to be a ruthless dictator. It’s naturally compelling but you wish that someone else might better realize its potential on a second crack.
Both films follow the powerful exploiting others for their whims and both movies leave a little something to be desired for, but both are prime examples on how documentaries can shine a light on the wealth of human experiences we wouldn’t believe in other movies.
The Lovers and the Despot: B
There’s quite a difference when director Oliver Stone actually gives a damn with a movie, and you can tell with Snowden that he is passionate about making a compelling and accessible movie for American audiences to understand why they should be angry. He wants to lead the righteous civil liberties mob against the right perpetrators while providing an appreciative moral context to the actions of Edward Snowden, America’s most famous fugitive. That sense of purpose and drive animates Stone in a way that his recent films have not, and even though it’s far less gonzo and experimental as Stone’s quintessential catalogue, the storytelling skill is still consistently engaging and the resulting 134 minutes inform as well as entertain.
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country and his expertise in computers landed him in various jobs working for U.S. agencies. He discovered the abuse of surveillance over everyday citizens rubber-stamped by a FISA court meant to provide oversight. Callous private contractors would surf through thousands of collected data points, and if pressed, could justify through terrorism connections, as it seems anyone in the world is perhaps three connections away from a person of interest (consider is the really unfortunate version of the Kevin Bacon game). Snowden risks everything to reach out to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson) to tell his story and make sure the larger public will know these abuses of power.
The best compliment I can give Stone as a screenwriter and director of Snowden is that he took a thoroughly challenging scenario with few cut-and-dry answers and made an accessible movie experience that effectively conveys moral outrage and dismay. It feels like Stone the educator is leading you by the hand, taking time out to explain some of the more delicate intricacies of the murky stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I won’t exactly declare it to be an intelligent examination on the moral implications of the material, but it’s certainly a movie that lands its goal of clarity. It produces a sense of clarity for the subject and a sense of clarity for why Snowden made the decisions he did. Gordon-Levitt delivers a steadily engrossing performance, even if it takes several minutes to adjust to his distracting speaking voice. Maybe my ears are just broken but it doesn’t sound like Snowden. Fortunately, my ears did adjust accordingly. Gordon-Levitt and Stone effectively kept my attention throughout the film. I was surprised how much I found myself enjoying long stretches of this movie, even if my own stance on Snowden is less clearly defined. He talks a good talk but the reality is messy.
Given Stone’s conspiratorial history, the plot definitely comes with a distinctive point of view over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I don’t think inherent bias in a movie or the angle taken in storytelling is inherently misguided and that all stories should be as objective as possible. Sometimes the circumstances don’t permit objectivity. Stone’s film is clearly biased but it doesn’t fall into a hagiographical hero worship of its titular figure. This is a complicated subject and deserves a proper analysis to place the real-life people in the meaningful morally ambiguous context. Snowden ultimately makes the decision to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower for what he felt were systematic abuses of government surveillance, but before that climactic decision he comes across less than a spotless martyr. His character arc is a fairly recognizable awakening of alarm and horror at the great abuses of power in the name of security. He does start off as a lifelong Republican with family members who have served in the military and different governmental bodies. He’s devastated to be medically discharged from the Army and hungry to serve his country. He’s a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the system, but he’s also rather self-involved and excuses ego with civic duty. I didn’t know how gifted Snowden was in his field, and the movie has some amusement with the wunderkind training sequences where Snowden delivers shock and awe to his stunned superiors. However, the second act becomes more than a bit protracted because Snowden keeps quitting but eventually going back to government surveillance, whether CIA or private subcontracting. This is because of the pay, sure, but it’s mainly because nobody can do what he can do. He feels important. He feels needed. He convinces himself he’s making a difference in the War on Terror, but eventually the reality of the widening peripheral of the war zone is too much to ignore for him.
This is further epitomized through the romantic subplot with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal firebrand, photographer, and exotic exercise instructor. Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) does her best infusing a warm personality into what is too often the underappreciated yet overly agreeable girlfriend role. It’s a storyline meant to further humanize Snowden as well as personalize the encroaching invasions of privacy and subsequent paranoia. After he discovers that the government can activate laptops and watch oblivious citizens through webcams, Snowden can’t help but stare down his open laptop during an almost laughably forced sex scene. My reaction as Lindsay climbed aboard Snowden was exactly this: “Oh, I guess this is happening now.” She would have a greater impact if the movie did more with her character, as she is the long-suffering girlfriend who keeps accommodating his life choices. They move three times across the country for his jobs and Snowden is always unable to fully explain why he feels the pull to these tech occupations, which further frustrates a woman who just wants trust and stability. There is one interesting conversation that Lindsay offers, typifying the blasé response to spying with a “well I have nothing to hide, so who cares” rationale. Snowden is quick to admonish this line of thinking, an opinion that many still share. The other regrettable reality is that the romance is inevitably going to be the least interesting facet of this story. By going behind the curtain of American secret surveillance, we’re indulging in our collective curiosity at how exactly all these moving parts operate. To then go home and watch a couple squabble is a consistent letdown of drama.
There are a few other artistic miscues that weigh down Snowden, mostly Stone’s penchant for heavy-handed symbolism. The same instincts that allow Stone to carefully thread a knotty story are the same impulses that tell him that subtlety is for cowards. There doesn’t need to be a frame story here. I understand that select media outlets trying to break this story naturally allows for a question-and-answer framing system of flashbacks. However, very little is added besides a skeletal structure. The media members act as reactionary acolytes. It was all captured much more credibly in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. There’s no earthly reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie except for drawing financing. He plays an old CIA code-breaker and admirer of outdated technology, but really he’s there to serve as an institutional nod to Snowden. At the conclusion, when Snowden’s identity and message becomes public, there’s a scene where Cage’s character literally toasts his pupil’s actions. I would say it’s a bit much but the character is a bit much for an actor that hasn’t generally been known for restraint. When Snowden is leaving the CIA offices in Hawaii for the last time, he steps out into the light (get it? get it?) and the scene is practically rendered in slow motion as the enveloping white light fills the screen and bathes Snowden (get it? get it?). He smiles bigger than we’ve ever seen. Lastly, Stone can’t just help himself during the very end and has Gordon-Levitt replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to deliver the closure of an interview. I don’t think we needed a reminder that Snowden is an actual living person.
Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, wanted to shake up an ignorant and apathetic American public about the dangers of unchecked power in a surveillance state, but was the mission a qualified success? Years later and Snowden living in exile in Russia, the charitable answer would be inconclusive, though the pessimist in goes further. It very well seems that the majority of the American public simply doesn’t care (out of sight out of mind). The trial over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor seems a little moot perhaps when the larger public shrugs at the revelations of security overreach. Does a movie about a Great Man have as much resonant cultural cache if that defining act of greatness produces a shrug? I’m by no means saying we should apply a polling system to accurately measure a person’s value and accomplishments to the larger cultural and political landscape. Snowden wanted to wake the public up but we hit the snooze button. In the meantime, the movie about his exploits is fairly entertaining, so at least he has that.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is my favorite James Bond movie. It’s everything you’d want in a spy thriller while charting its own edgy direction. It’s a combination of Bond and My Fair Lady, and I never knew how brilliant that combination could be until Vaughn got his hands on the graphic novel source material. Newcomer Taron Egerton lays on plenty of star-making charm as a spy-in-training under the guidance of a dapper gentleman brawler Colin Firth. The spy hijinks are fun and stylish but what Vaughn does just about better than any other big-budget filmmaker is pack his movie with payoffs small and large so that the end result is a dizzying rush of audience satisfaction. The action sequences are exhilarating, in particular a frenzied church massacre made to appear as a single take. I never would have thought of the tweedy Firth as an action hero, but he sure plays the part well. There’s also an awesome villainous henchwoman who has blades for legs, and the film makes fine use of this unique killing apparatus. Kingsman explodes with attitude, wit, dark surprises, and knowing nods to its genre forbearers. Vaughn is a filmmaker that has become a trusted brand. He has an innate ability to fully utilize the studio money at his disposal to create daringly entertaining movies that walk to their own stylish beat. This is a cocksure adrenaline shot of entertainment that left me begging for more.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s hard to keep a franchise that can almost count its decades on one whole hand fresh and relevant, but Daniel Craig’s time as 007 has done just that. Starting with 2006’s magnificent Casino Royale, we got a grittier Bond, a man with a bruised psychology that was interested in more than just how many bad guys he could callously kill and sexy ladies he could securely seduce. It was a franchise that modeled itself more after the Jason Bourne films, and it worked tremendously, giving the 40-year-old franchise new relevancy for modern audiences that have grown up on the Bond canon. 2012’s Skyfall was the biggest bond hit of all time, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. It was going to be a hard act to follow. Spectre, for all intents and purposes Craig’s franchise farewell, is a lousy swan song. It’s the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bond era but that claim would require me to rewatch 2008’s Quantum of Solace; however, just from memory, Solace had more engaging moments, stunts, and even a better theme song, so I’ll stick with my proclamation: Spectre is the most mediocre Craig Bond.
James Bond (Daniel Craig) is hunting the organization responsible for the deaths of those closest to him, namely Vesper (Eva Green) and the prior M (Judi Dench). His path has lead to the nefarious SPECTRE terrorist organization and its mysterious and feared leader (Christoph Waltz), who has his own personal reasons for causing Bond misery.
The movie’s biggest mistake was its insistence that the audience will want to know how all the events tie together as a whole. Due to this position, it makes Spectre the awkward retcon exercise it is, trying to provide winks and nods to past Craig Bond outings while saying, “Oh yeah, all that evil stuff, well this guy is The Guy behind it all.” Adding an extra layer of a criminal conspiracy doesn’t somehow make those events more interesting or provide the need for conclusion; it piggybacks off the earlier movies and pretends it has shown its own work. Spectre thinks the accumulated plot events and deaths of three movies is the same as properly setting up a story and its villains, and that’s just not the case. The other problem with trying to connect the dots to three previous movies is that Spectre has even fewer chances to stand on its own merits, which are admittedly fewer. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) is a bland addition as a Bond Girl, and oh does she pale in comparison to the capable and indispensable Rebecca Ferguson in the latest Mission: Impossible sequel. Their relationship is never as interesting or as properly developed as the film thinks. The stakes of the movie (surveillance abuse) feel too abstract and low-key, or at least poorly articulated, to feel important. If you’re going to turn the focus of the narrative on offering an apparent climax for multiple movies, it better deliver and feel like it was worth the effort, and Spectre just does not feel like that.
The other thing hat just doesn’t work is the bad guy, which is puzzling because Waltz was born to play a James Bond villain. The Craig Bonds have followed the more stripped down route even in their villains, once the parlance of the most colorful megalomaniacs that action cinema had to offer (and there’s also the eccentric henchmen). There’s a delayed buildup to revealing Waltz (Django Unchained) where other characters will talk in hushed whispers about just how dangerous and powerful the man in charge of Spectre is. A nagging problem is that we’re too often told these things without being shown them. A similar problem affected Skyfall where we spent half the film being told how dangerous and skillful its villain was, but at least Silva (Javier Bardem) lived up to the hype when he arrived, at least for a little while before degenerating into your standard psychopath. Waltz has exactly two sequences before the final showdown. That’s it, and for one of them he’s almost entirely in shadow at the end of a large table of shadowy figures. He’s not given a strong angle to play with his villain (spoilers) and his ultimate personal connection to our 007 agent feels far too forced and slight. Just like the rest of its hasty retconing, Waltz’s connection is meant to feel significant but its not dealt in any way like it should be significant. It’s almost a casual toss-off. It’s even worse when Waltz calls Bond his “cuckoo,” meant to be dark but is just really silly. Waltz is completely wasted in what is little more than a perturbed middle manager role. His climactic showdown with Bond feels impractical even for Bond movies. His downfall is even worse and made me laugh out loud how easily it all comes crashing down. If the emphasis of your movie is how the Big Bad is responsible for all the previous misfortune, then you better make sure the character was worth the wait.
Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) returned to the director’s chair and stages some nicely photographed sequences, but with the exception of a stirring opening sequence, the action of Spectre is quite tame and forgettable. The opening in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations has an interesting atmosphere and an ongoing tracking shot to pull us in from the start. From there, Bond has to take out a high-profile Spectre baddie and their struggle eventually carries over into a helicopter, both men punching wildly and trying to hold on for dear life as the copter whizzes upside down repeatedly. It’s a good set piece with some fun and unique aspects, like Bond escaping the crumbling wall of a building, but it’s the sheer thrill of watching the battle inside the helicopter that makes this opener a doozey. After that, I was sad to discover that nothing could measure up. Skyfall also peaked with its opening action caper but it still held my interest as it barreled toward its conclusion. I was resisting the urge to go to sleep with Spectre. An air chase over the trails of a mountain is interesting but doesn’t evolve, which is something vital to all exciting action sequences. If the action is static, it’s most often not going to be good after the initial rush wears off. There’s a decent car chase late at night in Rome but I got to think why Bond would be fleeing just one henchman even if that paid muscle were played by physical brute David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy). The film’s budget was reportedly $245 million and I just do not know where that money went.
The Craig era will be known for revitalizing the franchise, saving it from its self-parody excesses that were swallowing the series alive. We were watching Craig’s version of 007 become the hardened, quip-heavy, flippant killing machine and womanizer, except that he doesn’t feel like that character by the end of Spectre. If the course of four films was to bring the Bond we know into fruition, then it didn’t quite work, and that personally thrills me. Craig’s character is far more interesting, haunted by the people he couldn’t save, than the action hero Bond staple. However, while Craig’s character maintained a trajectory that staid true to its aim of bringing more depth to its central hero, the series was starting to hew closer to the classic Bond mode of empty bombast, and Spectre is the final proof of this. It’s getting closer to the crazy villains and spy hijinks of old territory. It’s a story that wants climax and resolution but cannot supply it without relying heavily upon the three previous movies to supply the weight this one lacks. It’s a rather lackluster farewell for Craig, an actor who deserved better. Judging by his interviews, I think he’s just happy to be out. He’ll be missed. Spectre will not. Now bring on Idris Elba please!
Nate’s Grade: C+
Guy Ritchie’s big screen reboot of the 1960s TV show is the right kind of fizzy summer escapist entry that goes down smooth and entertains with just enough swanky style to pass the time. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is equal parts spy thriller and straight-laced genre satire, hewing closer, and more successfully, to a marriage between Ritchie early cockney gangster flicks and his big-budget Sherlock Holmes action franchise. It’s often fun and surprising at how well it holds its tone between comedy and action; it almost feels like a screwball romance with guns and bombs. The trio of leads, Henry Cavill as the American agent, Armie Hammer as the KGB agent, and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as the German asset, make an engaging group with plenty of conflicts to explore. It’s surprisingly more character-based than driven by its action set-pieces. Cavill shows far more life and personality than I’ve ever seen from him on screen. Vikander and Hammer have an amusing chemistry together and the movie allows them to roughhouse without pushing either character in a direction that feels too safe. Their series of will-they-won’t-they near misses will drive certain portions of the audience mad. The movie gets into danger when Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram get too cute, especially with a narrative technique where the movie doubles back or highlights action that was in the background at least four times. The world of this movie is also another asset, as the period costumes, soundtrack, Italian locations and production design are terrific and further elevate the swanky mood. It’s an ebullient throwback that serves up enough entertainment with its own cock-eyed sense of throwback charm.
Nate’s Grade: B
The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.
In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.
Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.
Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.
Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying. We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.
The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.
The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.
Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.
Nate’s Grade: A-