Red Sparrow (2018)

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A thriller film is my favourite type of genre to watch, add spies to the mix and you’re surely onto a boiling pot of suspense, substance and ultimately a winner, right? In the case of Francis Lawrence’s new release, starring Katniss Everdeen from his previous directorial work, we get a rather stale movie with less thrills than expected.

Ex-ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) ends up seeing a bloody murder and to keep herself alive she’s ushered into the Russian intelligence as a Sparrow; an operative with the skills to employ seduction as a weapon. Meanwhile, CIA operative Nate (Joel Edgerton) is being tracked by the Russians, after an asset meeting, which leads them to believe the Americans are trying to keep this mysterious mole a safe secret.

‘Red Sparrow’ is deserving of its certification, it’s a ton more brutal than I expected. The amount of sexual violence, murder and torture give this a movie a definite blood soaked edge and gritty quality but more often than not it’s there as shock value and not much else below the surface. It’s with the sexualisation that this feature has been scraping up lots of problems and I agree with the majority of those comments. It’s not insanely gratuitous all the way through but and this is a big but, the movie fully seems to revel in the ‘whore school’ aspect of training and selling itself as a talking point of the skin factor with its leading lady showcasing her body.

This manipulative manner of training young cadets hoping to be important spies for Mother Russia, may be apt and the humiliation they go through is something I can truly believe still happens in the process of training, but this movie feels so cold and calculated to be more about style than any intriguing substance. Unlike the well constructed suspense and Cold War stakes of television series, ‘The Americans’, this film fails to follow in that vein in any sense, there are no interesting dynamics behind closed doors, it seems to merely wallow in the easy exploitation of its Sparrows and degrading J Law in flesh revealing outfits.

Francis Lawrence directs in an uneven manner, the movie totally meanders from scene to scene and this is what causes the pace to suffer. I did find the final thirty minutes to be of more interest as the mystery began to finally unravel more than before and frequent twists and turns came into play. The final ploy by Dominika is well executed and sustained my interest nicely and with a bubbling score to add tension it woke me up. Generally though, this is a long film that feels long; one that made me almost bored of what can only be described as a bland thriller.

Jennifer Lawrence is the best aspect in this entire thing, she’s a fine actor and she goes through a wheelhouse of almost every emotion as a spy taught to seduce and stay one step ahead. Joel Edgerton possesses a vague Yankee charisma as the American for J Law to keep in contact with but there’s something almost dimly grey about his performance, as with Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons who both appear to be giving about 20% to their characters. Matthias Schoenaerts is the next best performer as a man carrying untrustworthy motives like a suitcase, in his convincing turn as a rather creepy uncle.

There are minor moments when this ‘thriller’ is faintly intelligent and committed to espionage-like drama but it’s nowhere near as slick or smart as I think it believes itself to be.

5.5/10

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mother! (2017)

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Where do I even start with this film? The exclamation point of the title is certainly necessary and director Darren Aronofsky knew what he was doing by putting it there because this movie is one hell of an exclaiming visceral car crash.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is adamant to keep her home a neat and tidy Eden whilst her husband credited as Him (Javier Bardem) tries overcoming writers block. Their idyllic set up is swiftly interrupted by the arrival of Man and Woman (Ed Harris & Michelle Pfeiffer) who only begin to start the maddening destruction of Mother’s hopeful ordered life.

From this point onward I’ll keep quiet on the plot developments in case you haven’t heard of what crazy events take place. The religious allegorical element becomes so blatantly obvious upon reflection that the entire film feels like a try hard student project from an arrogant director thinking his feature is the Holy Grail. This is a shame and not something I expected from Aronofsky; a director whose work I had mostly enjoyed up until this point.

I guess the tight framings of almost every shot, the close ups or viewpoints stemming from Lawrence help build this frustrating level of anxiety that her character suffers throughout but it also means the film feels dreamlike and slow. It also says something that I felt queasy watching the action of the third act and that wasn’t because of the food poisoning I was already trying to stomach! It becomes, what I feel, is a truly unnecessary debauched trip of torture and an over the top display of what one man can do with a deranged take on the notion of ‘tarnishing Mother Earth’ and $30 million.

The first act is actually really well set up and this initial idea of a home being slowly intruded and torn apart makes for an intriguing and unsettling base point. The mystery of who the two strangers are and what they may end up doing was almost perfect, it felt like the basis of a tightly wound thriller but that ends up becoming bloodied and soiled by the end making me question why I even bothered committing to watching the entire film and not have more fun with my head over a toilet being sick.

Clint Mansell for the first time doesn’t team up with Aronofsky, instead the film is almost void of any music which actually does work to be fair. The sound design is on form and adds an extra layer of frustrating distress to accompany the growing torment of Mother. On another slight positive I have to say that all this press and polarising chatter does help the film because people are talking about it, the movie is getting attention which I’m sure is just what Aronofsky desired.

Jennifer Lawrence has a lot to carry on her shoulders as she appears pretty much constantly through this film bringing in a range of emotions as she becomes more and more pecked and broken by the escalating carnage in her house. Javier Bardem feels like a wasted actor, not doing much of anything apart from carrying some vague sinister indifference to what happens around him. It’s Michelle Pfeiffer that stands out in a creepy way, her stares and her calculated presence being just what the film needs.

mother! is certainly a film that seems to have no middle ground, almost like Marmite in a way. I guess the intelligent comment would be to say I need to see this film again and try and see what the people who like it may be seeing but I just 100% don’t wish to watch this movie ever again!

2.5/10

Passengers (2016)

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‘There’s a reason they woke up early’, so the tagline for this movie goes, as it turns out it’s not a very interesting or even great one. The only great thing the film has going for it is the fun chemistry between its leads and a superbly glossy style for the ship where the action takes place.

Avalon; a spaceship, is travelling to Homestead II, a planet for people to live on. The course will take 90 years but suddenly passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes from his hibernation pod and finds himself alone. Preston’s only company is a barman android named Arthur (Michael Sheen). Later down the line, writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) is awoken and with Jim they try to solve the ship’s mystery whilst also falling for each other.

For the positives of this movie, the spaceship has a cool and incredibly sleek design. It’s clear the makers of the film have taken time to think about how certain rooms and items should appear. Avalon is a rotating craft and on the inside, modern technology is advanced with rooms aboard boasting entertainment to rival cruise liners. The connection between Jim and Aurora grows nicely and is believable consistently as they spend more time together. Gravity falls, machines fail and threat does come into play for moments which is good to see but that doesn’t outweigh the rubbish plot.

It’s a shame the story increases in it’s ridiculousness because for the portions of the movie where Pratt is by himself the movie is strong. It of course never reaches that amazing solitary ‘Moon’ vibe of Rockwell/Jones but it gets close and has a neat cold vibe about it as we see him struggle. Sadly as the sci-fi dwindles and the romance takes over it feels like ‘Titanic’ in space, also plot points that create dramatic changes are executed in the most expositional way.

Not only these moments annoyed me in how the writers got the story to move forwards but there were no twists which I expected and the actual thing that caused early rising from hibernation was nowhere near a revelation as it could…should have been. That could have been a clever and possibly dark idea played with but they never tread down that path, even ‘Wall-E’ is a darker comment on society than this is.

Chris Pratt is engaging and manages to submerge his usual Pratt shtick as the cabin-fever sets in. Jennifer Lawrence is a glowing presence as she steps into the story and breaks down with suitable emotion upon realising why she’s there. Together as a couple of love struck space travellers they work well and a spark is clear. Michael Sheen plays a near emotionless character to convincing standards with ever present glossy eyes and almost creepy smile adding to his role.

This film gets more dumb as it continues and makes you forget the nice intense moments that it started with. Aside from a captivating pairing of actors this is a creepily played out love story that doesn’t know how to stop.

5.5/10

 

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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Storming onto the big screen with the X-Men of the 80’s, this film is a Beast of CGI but doesn’t soar like a Phoenix, in fact it feels to me at least, more Rogue than the two movies that came before with the McAvoy/Fassbender line-up.

In Ancient Egypt, the almighty En Sabah Nur or Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is re-born but trapped. Shuttling through a time tunnel to the 80’s we have an Xavier school for mutants doing well and Professor X (James McAvoy) wants to expand on this university ideal. However Apocalypse believes he is the one God and wants to rid the world and start anew, so he brings together his Four Horseman, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to kill mutants and humans and take over Earth.

Bryan Singer is back as director and the glossy ensemble look of his films is still as true as before. There’s a lot of character back and forth and backgrounds assembling, blowing up or changing. This, his fourth X-Men feature seems to be missing the threat level, I mean people will say that destroying the planet is a threat, but I mean this movie feels sorely lacking of any grit in the tension department. Everything passes through, scene to scene and the stakes don’t feel raised.

So, however explosive the film may look at times and what with the sleek costumes of Apocalypse’s henchpeople and the new gear of the X-Men, we feel thrust into a visually detailed movie but I felt less than thrust into a detailed narrative. Simon Kinberg’s screenplay doesn’t conjure the Days of Future Past thrills or First Class joy, it just sits there throughout the runtime in a meh sort of way, which isn’t great considering the talented cast involved.

It just gets muddled with too much character and action work, Apocalypse; whose name is never mentioned that way is a seriously bland villain which is a huge shame. The Four Horseman pose in the background and don’t do much else. The less than surprising snarly cameo is a blood soaked sequence of little excitement and this theme of standing together never stands well. I honestly found this movie boring, there’s a lot of talking and not many sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments. There’s like 2 main fight scenes and they’re not long or impressive like you’d hope.

The saving graces for this superhero outing are the return of the brilliant and better than Avengers version of Quicksilver, who rockets around in his fantastically sound-tracked adventures of slowing time due to his speed. A forested scene with Magneto and his family is a grey and surprisingly dark point of the film that works. Apart from that I can’t think of any other parts that help the film because the new characters are hurried and so you don’t feel for them, know them or care about their fate, the older characters get dull arcs and the big baddie is a big bad dud. Jean Grey is right when she comments on third movies being the worst.

McAvoy is committed as ever and sells Charles Xavier as the caring good Professor wanting to help his school out. He’s subjected to balding, wheelchair issues and a final act dilemma and the actor plays it well. Fassbender is still tormented by the now boring to and fro of Magneto being good then not, yet he’s stern and unbroken for the darker side of Magneto which is all you can ask for. Jennifer Lawrence turns heads in the Berlin cage-fight scene and becomes her shady shade of blue, slowly meandering on the thoughts of Magneto yet still wanting to help Charles. It’s a very human performance but she has little to do, like Oscar Isaac who is smothered in vocal effects and make-up that his excellence is little felt. That plus the fact that the villain is poorly executed and holds no damning threat. Sophie Turner is a neat addition, the Game of Thrones actress is Jean Grey through and through. Evan Peters is the silver streak of the film, when he turns up backed by The Eurythmics everything feels right in the world.

Slightly entertaining but mostly not, this is an average X-Men release that sadly holds no tension or little fun but looks good, it looks just fine.

5.5/10

 

Joy (2015)

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One consistent ray of joy through this film is Jennifer Lawrence’s astounding performance that carries on showing what a talent she is, but the story and directing choices leave you feeling less than that title feeling as a sort of biographical narrative leaves you uninterested.

Divorcee and mother Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is no longer the young dreamer, after a strained marriage and still living at home with an odd family, she painfully comes across an idea that could change the face of cleaning. She gets help from dad Rudy (Robert De Niro) and even backing from booming TV sales show QVC executive Neil (Bradley Cooper) but she may have bitten off more than she can chew.

In my opinion the strongest part of this movie, aside from Lawrence herself, is the ending of the second act as we step into the realm of television shopping and see QVC potentially spark fame and fortune for Joy. The section is entertaining and paced well, the moment Joy returns to demonstrate her own invention is exciting and inspiring and Cooper’s driven knowing persona helps bring some much needed energy into what had previously been a quite laborious journey.

The annoying thing here is that this TV spotlight moment feels like a third act feature but we soon find this is not the case. The third act is in fact the troubling downfall that could face Joy as she stumbles over payments, patents and embezzlement cases, which immediately stalls the pace and makes us swerve back into almost dull land again, it’d be okay if the writing or directing made these climaxes and obstacles dramatic or interesting but they aren’t. The movie seems to be more focused on filling up the criteria of a pre-Academy panel and less on the potential of Joy as a character.

That’s the worst thing also, because though I am nowhere near a fan of David O. Russell, I do find interest in his usually well fleshed out characters but here, O. Russell seems to squander any passion out of his work as we flicker back and forth in time over a frankly annoying supporting family and a titular figure who seems way too passive to make us stand up and wish her the best. There is no engaging emotion in the story as it just feels like knock back after knock back, which is boring and uninventive if nothing else.

David O. Russell writes like this is some absurdist play, the theatrical elements are clear a lot of the time and though some pay off, the majority do not. The attempt at comedy falls flat on it’s face like any Adam Sandler flick and the way each member of the family act or speak is so annoying that it drives any reality or comic buzz out of the plot. The screening I saw was actually pretty busy and I didn’t hear one person laugh which for a clear attempt at comedy/drama is not a fantastic signal. Also, the whole soap opera interpolation and dream sequences are pointless and add nothing but more run time which feels long enough as it is.

The choice of music crops up as another weakening quality, it has some stirring moments and mostly within the QVC part but then when the score subsides, a whole tracklist of songs bellow in which make the scenes and therefore the film feel cheesy and cheap, they don’t overly work with the action presented and that’s why you notice them, they stand out as if Now That’s What I Call the Worst Playlist is being played over the speakers. I may be being somewhat harsh but it honestly doesn’t feel right within the film that could have been more poignant and inspiring.

Jennifer Lawrence is as mentioned from the beginning, the best part of this film. She shows a passion and emotional response to her surroundings and you see her getting smart and hands on with the world, it’s a powerful female character and Lawrence steals every scene. Bradley Cooper starts fresh and helps pick up the film as he swings into action helping both Joy and the narrative along, he does sink into the shadows after a while though. Robert De Niro is interesting to a degree as love hunting father and less than believing in his daughter’s abilities. It’s a big ensemble cast but they either feel like bit parts or annoying sidekicks that deter from the story we really want to see.

By a country mile, this is David O. Russell’s worst film of late and yet sadly I can see the awards season giving it fair props. It doesn’t feel funny, uplifting, sad or at all joyous.

5/10

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

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The young adult movie phenomenon is now at its end, the closing chapters of Katniss and her (not so) merry followers hits the big screen and after a year wait is it worth it? My rapid answer is to say no. After what I now deem a well paced and interesting political agenda theme from Part 1, this promise of excitement and action never flies straight or aims true.

We pick up from 2014 with just strangled Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) coming to terms with the fact that Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) may never be the same thanks to President Snow (Donald Sutherland), which leads to her want of killing the Capitol head and bringing Panem to unity. Now with President Coin (Julianne Moore) in the mix, Katniss must work out who there is to trust as she makes her way through the districts to end this war.

With three of the four Hunger Games movies under his belt, Francis Lawrence should know what he’s doing right? Wrong, it seems to all come to a dreary finale as this last film does nearly everything to make you wonder why you liked the franchise in the first place. I mean, granted I haven’t read the books yet but with this direction, there’s no intrigue or suspense and Lawrence brings the movie no pacing quality, it’s almost as if he just sat back and let the dialogue be shot not even thinking of how slow and laborious it makes the film feel.

Danny Strong and Peter Craig double up to take on Suzanne Collins’ well received novels, but whatever may happen on the page doesn’t all need to be seen on screen. The most tedious element is this almost Deal or no Deal game of real or no real between Katniss and Peeta that bores to the core. I won’t even go into the closing moments of the movie that had me cringing and laughing in equal measure of horror. It loses the political, conspiracy edge and is quickly replaced by predictable teen romance that taints what could have been a cool run of films that thrust society and its problems in the spotlight.

I always feel a film is best when it leaves the audience asking questions and making it their own by having their own interpretations of what could happen down the timeline but this Part 2 is nonsense and closes everything, spoon-feeding the audience so they have nothing to ponder about. It’s a real shame because after the grit of the first and the set up of the third, this just goes and makes me hate the whole HG story.

Not even the rare moments of darkness or grim action can save this film but I will go into the points that I enjoyed. ‘The Descent’-esque sequence of mutts in the underground escape is shot fast and cut like a madman editing for the first time but in this crazed scene of hell breaking loose it works well. The oil slick beginning was interesting before becoming stupid and Jennifer Lawrence gives Katniss that strong yet emotional female lead the power it deserves as everything possible gets in her way.

A lot of things ultimately feel lost in this movie, the editing truly doesn’t help us immerse into the story, it cuts so damn often that we never see who’s died and we don’t know much about them in the first place which severely lessens the impact of their deaths. The idea of uprising is so pushed yet lost to the wayside for effects and ‘Peeniss’ love struggles that when it does come back to the fore it’s presented so clearly that we can tell what’s going to happen a mile off, once again I haven’t read the books but I guessed most of what was going to happen throughout this film which lands like a massive weakness in my eyes.

Jennifer Lawrence leads us through this savage landscape with clear motivation yet troubled emotion as she flickers between determined symbol of hope to saddened lover and sister. She has become the perfect actress for Katniss and especially as she acts opposite, hopefully Best Supporting cat she demonstrates the raw talent she has in her arsenal. Josh Hutcherson does good with the evil brainwashed moments but then is nothing more than a loyal and romantic character for Katniss, so too with Liam Hemsworth’s Gale that is still one of the most dull characters. Woody Harrelson brings much needed laughter in the little things he does or says, Elizabeth Banks is apparently not in the last book and nor was she really needed in this movie, only giving the costuming department more work to do. Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore battle it out as opposing leaders and do in fact give interesting moments about right and wrong in their equal flawed beliefs but for me the bittersweet aspect was seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last ever film still showing that with even a small role he possessed the acting magic many can but dream of.

I can’t say I hated this film but I most defintley didn’t like it either. It suffers under a heavy amount of dragging, laughable writing and how it’s shown and as everything watched over three years boils down to this, we lift the lid to a Capitol whimper.

5.5/10

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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There’s no unnecessary action filler or forced suspense, this film stands quite nicely alone as a separate movie with a humongous political undercurrent coarsing through it. Of course it is mostly pre amble material to set the stage for what will hopefully be the big climax of it all, but it never feels boring. I went in knowing it would be a first parter, that would likely present the beginning of the major revolution and I hoped it would succeed in strong character development in the absence of spectacle and I can confirm it does.

Picking up not that far after the events of ‘Catching Fire’, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in the underground District 13. Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and District president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) want to advertise the fight within Katniss to keep the riots across the districts going and ultimately take down President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol. Katniss meets new rebels on the path to raise hope and save Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

It’s a very different Katniss in some regards. The character progression and focus is pretty effective for all figures involved to tell the truth. Miss Everdeen is a more somber broken girl than she’s ever been, her appearance in the Quarter Quell has effected her deeply and her bond with Peeta is clearly the big character push of the movie. I think this film does a good job with highlighting the reluctant hero status of Katniss and through rubbled district visits and propaganda shoots, we firmly see the way this mockingjay is born and fuelled. Peeta’s character may take sidelines in physical presence, but the film is never subtle on making it clear his presence is felt elsewhere and later on he gets a great whack of powerful character change thanks to his time in the Capitol. Thankfully Plutarch gets more to do and under his now much clearer good guy status, he thrives as a propaganda master, his job has changed dramatically but he makes this one his own as much as head gamemaker.

The new characters are a welcome fresh addition and Alma Coin is a cool opposite in presidential terms, her leadership shown as feisty rebel leader and unifier compared to the sneaky tyrant Snow. Coin also serves as a nice flip side to Katniss, both are leaders with followers, both have ideas but Coin is a more assured role with fight, politics and a huge vision. Then there’s the propaganda crew who film and record sound for Katniss’ drops in other districts. They’re a pretty blank set of characters sadly, they try to give some personalities but in this part at least, they don’t come alive, even led by the media manipulating Cressida, there’s not much substance under her tattooed skin.

Once again James Newton Howard puts together a score that never overpowers the image on screen. It’s even more of a bubbling lurking sense of dread, the rebellion and political themes influencing the music and aiding the build up tension in quite a few moments. The stairwell scene is brilliantly tense, the shocks of sound that burst in on something quite unpleasant Peeta does make it sound like a troubling horror for a few seconds. It’s a film with an obvious thread of uprising drama, smoking rubble, injured civilians and grey uniformed district 13-ers come together in a clear picture of purpose and creation of power.

Francis Lawrence captures most of the film with a generous blend of handicam and then smoother moments, though this time there is more shaky camerawork that works to desired effect of making it feel more real, more uneasy and less stylised and that needs to happen considering the more raw plot this time around. It’s a very watchable film, even if it’s quite a basic set up for next year’s finale, thanks to some much needed light relief in Haymitch and Effie, suspense of Capitol breakdowns and character study in the case of Katniss fluctuating in her role as mockingjay.

Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic. I could easily stop there but I guess I should expand. She’s a powerful and dominating actress with a talent of slipping into raspy anger, streams of tears or quirky awkward humour whenever needed. Lawrence acting an acting moment in front of what is that district’s own green screen is a great pause in the drama and gives time for comedy to shine as Plutarch, Effie and Haymitch despair at Katniss’ shocking delivery in a propaganda video shoot. Philip Seymour Hoffman has gladly more to do and makes Plutarch more interesting than his character might otherwise be. The last film he completed work on and that does paint a level of vulnerable sadness over his performance which works actually. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are on form as per usual and deliver the right dose of funny to serious to keep their characters two of the best in the series. Josh Hutcherson has little to do, more than Jena Malone but still not a lot, yet he really breaks out the mould of pretty dull whiny sidekick at one significant moment. A growing cast but all play their part even if some are obvious uninteresting parts compared to the likes of others.

There is quite a lot of time when lulls slightly, Katniss and her repeated viewings to districts is like the tiresome whistle-stop victory tour in the previous film, a key character detail of Snow’s is lost in the exploration of the COD-like recon mission and on the whole this film does feel nothing more than a set up, no spectacle or dazzle isn’t a bad thing but it leaves you wanting more and Part 1 is a stop that needs to be made even if you know not much will happen during it.

Effective in character and subtext and even more successful in building the anticipation of what will go down in Part 2, the same time next year. A smoky shadowy teen rebellion drama that becomes a rather cool political thriller.

7/10