Out on Friday March 2
Jennifer Lawrence lifts a solid espionage thriller. Daniela Vega delivers a star-making performance.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Red Sparrow, A Fantastic Woman, Erase and Forget, and The Nile Hilton Incident.
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When the Red Sparrow trailer first dropped, the general consensus was that it looked like the origin story for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, the one that Marvel hasn’t yet got round to making yet. Let’s make something clear from the outset: Red Sparrow is absolutely not that film. Set in the covert world of Russian sex spies, this tough-to-categorise thriller contains the sort of brutal violence, sexual assault and state-sponsored torture that would never make it into a family-friendly blockbuster. Never boring but occasionally troubling, Red Sparrow is, like its central character, a tricky one to read.
The world that is set up is certainly attention-grabbing. The story begins by cross-cutting between two very different events in Moscow. At the ballet, prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is performing on stage, while in Gorky Park, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is meeting his Russian informant. Neither evening goes quite as planned; a fellow dancer’s misstep sees Dominika’s leg broken (her dreams shattered along with the bone), while an unexpected intervention causes Nate to scarper for the nearest embassy.
After being replaced by her company, Dominika is struggling to care for her ailing mother until her seedy intelligence agent uncle, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), offers her a way out. Take part in a seduction/espionage mission, and her mother’s medical expenses will be taken care of. Needless to say, the plot doesn’t go off as expected, and Dominika finds herself signed up for ‘Sparrow School’ in an isolated boarding house that trains attractive young people in seduction and manipulation, so that those skills can be used to further Russian interests in the wider world.
“Your body belongs to the state,” explains the school’s cold matron (Charlotte Rampling), before setting out a syllabus of jogging in the snow, target practice, lock picking and porn watching, and the practical assignments don’t really bear thinking about: students are routinely forced to strip and/or perform sex acts in front of their classmates. “It’s just flesh,” is Rampling’s heartless reasoning when teaching the class how to fake physical attraction on demand.
Once Dominika has ‘graduated’ and assumed a fake name, she’s sent to trail Nate, who’s looking to reconnect with his informant. And so kicks of a global story of double crosses and tenuous allegiances, that hops from Moscow to Budapest, the US, Vienna, London and occasionally back on itself. But for all it’s glossy production values, Red Sparrow doesn’t feel like it’s appealing to the Bond market. There’s a surface sheen, but that only exaggerates the lack of glamour present. There’s none of the fun that 007 (even Craig’s 007) finds time for.
It’s difficult to know who it’s really aimed at: too grim, gritty, and short on explosions for a multiplex actioner, and a bit too graphic for the Tinker Tailor crowd. And given that it’s directed by Francis Lawrence, J-Law’s Hunger Games 2-4 director, no concessions have been made to the YA crowd. This is adult fare, and pushes its 15 certificate to the complaint-baiting limit.
Despite a running time of well over two hours, it’s never boring, and the leads ensure it’s always highly watchable. Jennifer Lawrence commits to an impressively not-distracting Russian accent, and doesn’t flinch from the physical demands of the role, and Edgerton effortlessly essays a gruff, natural charisma as pretty much the only character with a clear moral code. Dominika herself is less easy to root for. It’s quite possible that’s intentional. Her mother warns her to hold something of herself back before she heads to the academy, and she arguably does that too well, never really letting anyone (including the audience) entirely in on what she’s thinking.
For much of the story she’s somewhat passive, being moved like a pawn from one spot to the next without being given the opportunity to demonstrate her own agency. Besides the ‘sick mum’ card that’s played early on, it’s hard to know what drives her, and her characters motives are clouded by an early act of revenge she commits. The wider implications of Dominika and Nate’s missions also remain somewhat elusive.
Schoenaerts is suitably unpleasant as the primary antagonist of the piece, and there’s classy support from the dependable likes of Rampling and Jeremy Irons. Francis Lawrence marshals moments of genuine tension throughout, including a tense trade-off at a London hotel, but it never truly grips like the best conspiracy thrillers. There’s the sense that the cast are doing the heavy-lifting on a fairly straightforward story, and the frequent interjections of shocking violence mean it’s a tough film to settle into: the shocks have an almost muting effect on other aspects of the story.
Red Sparrow is based on a book by former CIA officer Jason Matthews, which is itself part of a trilogy; no doubt the movie’s producers have their eyes on a franchise. It’s hard to know how much more you’d really want to subject yourself too, though, if the tone is as brutal as this. In terms of crowd-pleasing franchise fare, you’re probably best off sticking with Black Widow.
THE VERDICT: A solid espionage thriller that’s lifted by its charismatic leads, Red Sparrow commits to the brutality of its subject matter, meaning it’s never easy viewing.
Director: Francis Lawrence; Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons; Theatrical release: March 1, 2018
A Fantastic Woman
Rich in music and empathy, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s 2013 festival hit Gloria was a vivacious study of a middle-aged woman’s longing for life. That flair for female-centred, emotionally keen drama blossoms in his follow-up. First wrenching, finally uplifting, A Fantastic Woman traces a grief-lashed trans singer’s tireless pursuit of respect.
We first encounter Daniela Vega’s Marina in a bar, hitting the right notes as she sings to older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). But a brutal twist of fortune follows when, later that night, Orlando dies from an aneurysm. Though reeling with shock and sorrow, Marina faces a seemingly insurmountable battle to assert her rights to hospital officials, suspicious cops and contemptuous family-members: sensitivity and understanding are not, it seems, priorities on their plates.
Even before Orlando’s aggressive son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) and ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) fire off fusillades of toxic bile and brutality, variable indignities – patronising, humiliating, threatening – are landed on Marina. Bruno claims Orlando’s dog, Sonia his car. Neither gives any thought to what Orlando would have wanted, or to Marina’s right to mourn.
If these prejudices seem blunt, that’s surely Lelio and returning Gloria co-writer Gonzalo Maza’s point: hate isn’t often big on restrained self-awareness. Balancing notes of compassion emerge too, via Marina’s stoned sister (Trinidad González) and Orlando’s bumbling brother (Luis Gnecco). Yet issue-movie politics don’t dominate A Fantastic Woman. Instead, it cleaves closer to a heartfelt, first-person human drama of resilience via a lead performance brimming with charismatic fortitude.
Despite her near-constant forward motion, Vega grounds Marina with a composed intensity of still, focused feeling. Even with extra emotions at stake, she hits every note with intuitive precision: and she can sing the shit out of a song, too, from pop ditties to arias. Whether she’s staring the camera out, battling against fierce winds for a silent movie-ish set-piece, or jumping on an enemy’s car in a rare show of anger, Vega brooks no doubt in her immersion, nor in her ability to sell every mood-swing without forcing her hand.
Honouring her tenacity with tenderness and shared reserves of contained rage, Lelio and DoP Benjamín Echazarreta pin the camera close to Marina. Meanwhile, Marina’s internal perspective is beautifully evoked in Matthew Herbert’s mellifluous score, whether he’s summoning dreamy depths of yearning or letting off steam for a fantastical rave-up interlude. As Marina’s inner life erupts in Almodóvar-ish dance fantasy and song, the sense of life-affirming release is palpable, and fully earned.
THE VERDICT: Defiant, determined, Vega delivers a star-making performance in a drama of embattled grief, directed with heart.
Director: Sebastián Lelio; Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Aline Küppenheim; Theatrical release: March 2, 2018
Mom and Dad
It starts with a day in the suburbs that’s like any other day in the suburbs: dad (Nicolas Cage) clocks in at work, mum (Selma Blair) heads for yoga, teen daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and her little brother Josh (Zackary Arthur) go to school. OK, so dad might have played a little rough in a tickle fight with his son, but no one could predict what happens next.
Namely, that a signal transmitted on TV and computer screens makes every parent in town – and, according to news bulletins, America – hell-bent on killing their kids. Mothers stalk the school gates like lionesses eyeing trapped bison. Fathers glare at the row of newborns laid out in a nursery. Seventeen-stone men rugby tackle their fleeing teenage daughters on the football pitch. And Carly and Josh make it home to lock themselves in the basement, Night of the Living Dead-style, only for their own folks to start hacking at the door…
To some, the mere concept of Mom and Dad will be too much – there’s a reason why adults killing children is the domain of horror films such as Village of the Damned, Who Can Kill a Child? and The Omen (opens in new tab), and then only when the sprogs are evil.
To others, raised on exploitation movies and/or possessing a wide streak of mischief, the execution (or rather executions) will disappoint – no doubt fearing the censors, Mom and Dad never goes full-throttle, implying rather than showing when a kamikaze splatterfest would have arguably rendered the laughs more explosive. There’s certainly nothing here as shocking as the blonde girl being gunned down in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (opens in new tab).
But there is fun to be had, and a fair amount of it. Written and directed by Brian Taylor, who last teamed with Cage on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (opens in new tab) and who previously co-helmed (with Mark Neveldine) the crazed Crank (opens in new tab) movies, this employs his now-signature style of hurtling camera moves spliced with fish-eyed close-ups. Knives, pick axes and even pointy coat hangers are wielded in the kids’ direction, while Cage unleashes his bug-eyed bonkers act, smashing shit up and screaming “ANAL BEADS!” with lusty gusto.
Under the carnage lurks a blunt-force satire on ageing and the American Dream, with Blair rather touching as the electric saw-wielding mum who gave up her career for a family that no longer appreciates her. Other ideas (equating the inbuilt lifespan of today’s tech to nature’s constant upgrading) are interesting but soon forgotten, and Taylor’s invention, always thrashing against the shackles of a tight budget, runs out of puff before finding a satisfactory climax.
THE VERDICT: An exploitation movie that, paradoxically, exhibits too much good taste. Still, expect “Saws all!” to become a 2018 catchphrase.
Director: Brian Taylor; Starring: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters; Theatrical release: March 2, 2018
Erase and Forget
Bo Gritz is America’s most highly decorated Green Beret, a Vietnam vet responsible for 400 enemy kills and the reported inspiration for Rambo. However, Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s doc eschews machismo for something darker, contrasting disturbing war footage with Gritz’s musings and insight into his relationship with Hollywood.
The result is like a Lynchian nightmare of right-wing America. Chilling.
Directors: Andrea Luka Zimmerman; Theatrical release: March 2, 2018
The Nile Hilton Incident
Haggard cops, hotel homicides, endless ciggies… Helmer Tarik Saleh makes 2011 Cairo noir-ish in a stylishly pungent, politically loaded procedural. Oozing charisma, Fares Fares plays a shady cop working a “sensitive” case.
As the throbbing score and noodle breaks echo Blade Runner, a whiff of corruption runs so deep that the Chinatown-ish finale feels grimly inevitable.
Director: Tarik Saleh; Starring: Fares Fares, Mari Malek, Yaser Aly Maher; Theatrical release: March 2, 2018