Sunday, March 11, 2018

Red Sparrow, Annihilation, A Fantastic Woman, The Insult Reviews

Red Sparrow
Dir. Francis Lawrence
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One of the oldest spy movie cliches is the love affair between two secret agents. From classics like Hitchcock's Notorious in 1946 to more modern fare like 2016's Allied, it's a well that's been run pretty dry by this point. But that didn't stop the dynamic Hunger Games duo Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) from adding to the pile with Red Sparrow, a thriller based on the book of the same name. In this case it's a Russian and an American spy cautiously eyeing each other in a dull, lifeless game of "can we trust each other?"

When Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers a career-ending injury on stage, her Putin-lookalike Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works for Russian intelligence, offers her a way to continue supporting her sick mother (Joely Richardson): work for him. She's soon trained as a "sparrow," Russian agents who sexually manipulate their targets to obtain information (what a nice Uncle, huh?). Dominika, whose body now belongs to the state (or does it?), is finally tasked with getting close to American CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who knows the identity of a mole in the Russian government. But - as what usually happens in movies - a relationship forms between the American and Russian spies, and the audience is left wondering if their feelings are genuine or just a front for their own ends.

Although the murky motives of all the characters is supposed to make the film full of intrigue, it ultimately backfires as you're simply waiting for the film to finally "reveal" whatever twist is in store. It's all unsatisfying in the end. The only parts of the movie that holds much interest are the "Sparrow" training sequences at what Dominika describes as "whore school," wherein an unscrupulous teacher (a scenery-chewing Charlotte Rampling) teaches her pupils the art of turning men's own sexuality against them. But while I was hoping it would be fun to watch Jennifer Lawrence play this underestimated dancer-turned-femme fatale making fools out of the men around her, the film does nothing fun or interesting with its set-up - it's all a long, self-serious, tedious bore.

In the wake of the "me too" movement and the calling-out of sexual abusers in the industry, this movie also sends some awkward messages about sexuality. Having been raped on her first mission, Dominika's sparrow training is fueled by her wanting to "reclaim" her sexual power by instead inviting creeps to have sex with her for information. Saying that you can basically de-power a rapist by sexually dominating them back is this movie's strange idea of feminism. To me, this felt like a pure exploitation movie that projects itself as a "classy" thriller. And for a spy movie, Jennifer Lawrence doesn't do much cool spy stuff - the only "gadget" in her arsenal seems to be her vagina.

Although it's a decent enough movie with a lush score from James Newton Howard, glossy cinematography, a whole host of fun character actors (especially Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons), and sporadic bursts of shocking violence,  there's little in the story to keep you invested. With shows like The Americans and Homeland tackling US-Russia spy dramas with more vision and suspense, there's little reason to watch this film.

Final Verdict:

Dir. Alex Garland
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In the opening scene of Alex Garland's Annihilation, Natalie Portman is sitting in a quarantined room, being questioned by a hazmat-suited B.D. Wong. She's just come back from the "Shimmer" - a mysterious area on the Southern coast where an alien object has crash landed - and seeing as no one else has ever made it out alive, she's endlessly being questioned about this alien form she encountered. However, she can't find the words to explain it - it's unlike anything she's ever seen. This exchange accurately sets the tone for the rest of the film - what the audience experiences truly does transcend words. In the tradition of "thinking man's" sci-fi like 2001Annihilation is a trippy, cinematic nightmare that defies explanation and, to its benefit, doesn't give the audience all the answers.

Based on the first of three books by Jeff VanderMeer (though only loosely according to the Internet), the movie version follows a biology professor, Lena (Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) never returned from a mysterious mission, presumed dead. However, a year later he shows up at her doorstep, but something's definitely wrong with him. He's acting like someone wiped his hard drive and he starts coughing up blood. Soon the couple is whisked away to "Area X," where Kane first vanished, and Lena agrees to join an all-female expedition into "The Shimmer" to uncover its mysteries and possibly figure out how to cure her husband.

Although it's a slow burn, I love how this movie quietly envelopes you in its dreamy, unpredictable world. The cinematography here is astounding, visualizing the "Shimmer" as a kind of otherworldly light, as if looking through a glass prism. Laws of biology take a Cronenbergian turn once inside, with all the animals and plants behaving in unexpected and unsettling ways. I'm trying to tiptoe around what actually happens because there are so many surprises lurking in the Shimmer that freaked me out. The ending sequence in particular left me puzzled and dazzled as I wandered back into the parking lot.

Annihilation is equal parts beautiful, provocative, and nightmare-inducing.  Its slow pace and ambiguity might piss off your "steak and potatoes" kind of cinemagoer, but I'm so glad interesting and intellectually-challenging science fiction films like this are still making it to theaters!

Final Verdict:

A Fantastic Woman
Dir. Sebastián Lelio
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A Fantastic Woman is a Chilean drama that just took this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film is about a transgender waitress and singer, Marina (Daniela Vega), whose lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), 20 years her senior, falls fatally ill and dies. However, despite being head over heels in love, both Orlando's family and the doctors shun Marina, unable to understand her relationship with him or "what" she is. Forbidden to attend Orlando's funeral, being unfairly investigated for his murder by detectives, and subject to constant abuse, A Fantastic Woman is a heartbreaking film that works thanks to Vega's fearless performance as a woman fighting for her own identity (which is incredible seeing as it's her first film role).

In this type of story the Marina character would usually be subjected to a side part, but here she occupies almost every frame. The movie forces us to feel for Marina, and in that sense it succeeds. Film critic Roger Ebert once said: "...the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." While it's not a perfect movie, what A Fantastic Woman nails is this empathy, and I could imagine this film helping those typically stupefied by transgender people to understand their struggles.

Final Verdict:

The Insult
Dir. Ziad Doueiri
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I typically write my reviews all in one fell swoop, so that means I write some of them long after I've seen the film. The Insult is one such example, and the fact that I needed to remind myself what even happened in this one is a testament to my "Wait for Netflix" verdict. Also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, The Insult is a courtroom drama from Lebanon that depicts how a small incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee slowly escalates into a major media circus.

This movie is basically an on-the-nose allegory for the political problems and religious antagonism happening in the Middle East. While it has an intriguing premise and a nice message, the final film is too melodramatic for its own good. The one-note characters frequently make unrealistically long, impassioned speeches, and the whole thing feels manipulative and heavy-handed.

Final Verdict:

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