Review of “Red Sparrow”

Lead dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is injured when the lead male dancer does a leap and lands on her left leg, causing a serious fractured that ends her career. Her Uncle Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) works in a high position with Russian intelligence. He offers to make sure she keeps her apartment and provide doctors for her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson) if she agrees to help him. He wants her to meet a man at a hotel and swap out his cell phone for a duplicate so the government can eavesdrop on his calls. When she gets the man alone in the room an assassin kills him and takes her to meet with her uncle. Uncle Ivan makes her an offer: Go to a special training school where she will learn the arts of seduction and espionage and her mother will be taken care of. If she refuses she will be killed. Dominika accepts the offer to become what’s referred to as a “Sparrow.” CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) has been working an asset deep inside the Russian government for some time. A handoff of intelligence in a public park is interrupted by security and Nash is chased to the American embassy. There he learns he wasn’t about to have his and his mole’s cover blown but was merely going to be questioned about an unconnected matter. His bosses at CIA headquarters are unhappy and send him back to the U.S.; however, his contact within the Russian government won’t talk to any other agent so he is sent to Budapest, Hungary where his presence will likely ring alarm bells in Moscow and get the attention of his mole. Russian intelligence suspects there’s a traitor among them so they send Dominika, who has shown great potential in her time in Sparrow school, to try to seduce Nash and find out who the mole is.

“Red Sparrow” is a languidly paced espionage thriller that feels like it is perhaps three decades out of time. While the setting is completely modern the story is firmly set in the Cold War tensions of the previous century. Spies, moles, femme fatales, double agents, secret meetings, listening devices, dank prison cells where torture is carried out, it all feels dated despite the presence of smart phones, laptops and pinhole cameras providing HD images of clandestine gatherings. Even with a dated concept “Red Sparrow” is rather entertaining thanks to a riveting performance by Jennifer Lawrence that forces the audience to pay attention to every move she makes whenever she is on screen.

The plot of “Red Sparrow” is labyrinthine to say the least. Nothing is as you believe it to be past a certain point in the story. It is a web of deception so tightly constructed that one thread out of place would cause the entirety of it to fly apart. That’s one issue that most espionage thrillers have: They are too smart for their own good making the whole story feel more like a fantasy than a real-world drama. The grungy and drab nature of most of the film’s settings blunts the wilder and more unbelievable aspects of the story.

There is one scene in the film that really undercuts the believability of the story. I don’t want to give too much away as it is pivotal to what follows but a character is given a second chance when a bullet to the brain seems the most likely result of their suspected actions. The fact this character is allowed to live felt far too convenient.

By far the best part of “Red Sparrow” is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence plays the part of the ballerina-turned-spy with a cold detachment that might seem boring; however, the character is able to read her target and become what that person needs so she has very little emotion until she needs it to convince her target of her intensions. She is also able to manipulate and intimidate using the same tools. Lawrence gives a performance that is mesmerizing in that she’s able to be cold-blooded in one moment and vulnerable in the next. Whether that is the character trying to throw the other people she is dealing with off guard or these are her true feelings is part of what makes Dominika so interesting.

Sadly I can’t say the same about Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash. Dominika is clearly the character that has had the most thought put into her background and motivations. Nash is merely an obstacle for her to deal with. Nash is a shell of a character. We know nothing about him other than he works for the CIA. There was apparently no thought given to what makes Nash who he is and why he’s a good spy. The only reason we know he’s a good spy is he jumps to some very big conclusions when it comes to Dominika and whether or not she can be turned into an asset. Of course the audience thinks she can be turned because we know she hates being a Sparrow but he has no way of knowing that. Nash is that magical being dropped into films to drive the plot in certain directions whether it makes any sense or not. None of this is Edgerton’s fault as he is doing the best he can with what he’s given but what he’s given isn’t much.

“Red Sparrow” is rated R for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity, strong violence and torture. There are several scenes showing full or partial nudity of men and women. There is one scene of a rape in progress that is interrupted along with another attempted. There are some completely unsexy sex scenes that are used as training exercises at the Sparrow school. There is a sex scene between two characters that has almost no nudity and is one of those movie sex scenes that would never happen in real life. The violence is graphic. We see Dominika’s leg broken with nothing held back. There’s a scene showing the aftermath of a long torture session ending with the death of the tortured. There’s another torture session that ends in a knife fight with lots of blood. There are a couple of bloody head shots shown. We see a woman hit by a truck in the street. There are a couple of people shown being beaten with a cane and other instances of violence. Foul language is scattered.

“Red Sparrow” doesn’t always follow its own rules. While listening devices and cameras are apparently everywhere, the apartment of a known CIA operative in Budapest is devoid of all electronic eavesdropping equipment. There are other examples of “Red Sparrow” ignoring the conventions of the spy genre for the sake of moving the story along and for plot twists. These conveniently missed opportunities by the various clandestine agencies to maintain a watch on foreign operatives are part of what makes “Red Sparrow” a tad bit silly and melodramatic; however the performance of Jennifer Lawrence and a twisty plot that provides opportunities for more stories later on saves the film.

“Red Sparrow” gets four guitars out of five.

This week I’ll be review “Hurricane Heist” for WIMZ.com.

If I have time I’ll also review at least one of the follow:

Gringo—

Strangers: Prey at Night—

A Wrinkle in Time—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest in movie, streaming and TV news. Like, subscribe, rate and review on the podcast app of your choice. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Black Mass”

James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a violent mobster that runs most of the crime in South Boston. His brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator with no connection to his brother’s criminal doings. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up with the Bulger brothers in the same low income project. Whitey even saved Connolly when he was getting beat up by a gang of neighborhood boys. Now stationed in the Boston office, Connolly believes he can use Whitey as an informant to get valuable information about the Angiulo Brothers, a powerful crime family with ties to the mafia. Connolly approaches William hoping he will talk to Whitey on his behalf. Initially reluctant, William does mention Connolly to Whitey. When they meet, Whitey is resistant to the idea of helping the FBI but figures he can use them to take out his rivals in the Italian mob. Connolly promises Whitey his gang will have a wide berth with the FBI as long as they aren’t involved with drugs and don’t kill anyone. Whitey provides the location of the Angiulo Brothers headquarters and the FBI plants listening devices to gather intelligence. Whitey then uses what is essentially protection from the FBI to expand his operations and fill the vacuum left by the dismantling of the Italian mob. As time goes by Connolly’s boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and his assistant Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott) notice much of the information attributed to Bulger is actually copied from reports given by other informants. Connolly, who never had any real control over Bulger, is actually giving the mobster information that is leading to the deaths of any FBI informant that gives the agency dirt on Bulger. Connolly’s life is spinning out of control and both Bulger and the FBI are putting pressure on him to deliver results.

Real life crime dramas, or those that feel like real life, have a special place in my heart. Watching the events of “The Godfather” or “GoodFellas” play out, getting to know the characters, seeing them enter into a life of crime believing it to be easily manageable and then finding out it is all consuming and the toll it takes on their relationships and sanity is, if done well, absolutely fascinating. Based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Johnny Depp stars in “Black Mass” as James “Whitey” Bulger, the eye of the hurricane, the center of calm surrounded by chaos and destruction. While Bulger doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty from time to time, he leaves most of the death dealing to his associates. Bulger maintains an air of control and absolute knowledge, instilling fear in his underlings by making those he suspects of disloyalty disappear from the face of the Earth. Bulger is never to be questioned, teased, threatened or shown disrespect under threat of death. Depp is consumed by the visage of Bulger, displacing any resemblance to Capt. Jack Sparrow and Charlie Mortdecai and Tonto and Willy Wonka. This is not a man to be trifled with. This is evil with thinning hair and scary blue eyes. This may be the best character work in Depp’s career and he may be up for an Oscar.

“Black Mass” lives and dies on Depp’s performance and the film has plenty of health to spare. The rest of the cast also pumps life into the rest of the characters. Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and, in smaller roles, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane and others flesh out parts with quality acting work despite limited screen time. The one scene Depp has with Connolly’s wife, played by Nicholson, could have been considered a bit of throw away business; however, the tension and implied threat by Bulger towards his FBI handler’s wife is so thick and menacing, it sticks out as a highlight of a film filled with memorable scenes.

Not all the best parts involve violence and threats of violence. Depp’s Bulger is a doting father in his own way. He has a son with Lindsey Cyr played by Dakota Johnson. He gives the boy some godfatherly advice about handling a situation privately. After all, if no one sees you do something, it didn’t happen. Bulger’s gentleness extends to his neighbors in South Boston, helping an elderly woman get her groceries inside her home and telling his thugs to make sure she has everything she needs. He also has a playful relationship with his mother, letting her win a few hands of Gin while sweetly teasing her about cheating. These moments of normalcy provide sharp contrast and welcome relief from the violence that permeates Bulger’s business dealings.

The entire film is a fascinating look at how sometimes law enforcement enters uneasy alliances with criminals. While Bulger did give the FBI some information that helped bust up the local Mafia, the film says he used his relationship with his former neighbor and now FBI agent to better his own criminal business. The story of how law enforcers and law breakers can make the line between them disappear is certainly troubling but it also creates a myriad of emotional conflicts and ethical compromises that “Black Mass” uses to turn the good guys into questionable characters and the bad guys into borderline heroes. While the story is fairly simple and easy to follow it weaves a complicated tapestry of loyalty and lawlessness and how one can lead to the other.

“Black Mass” is rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. There are numerous on-screen killings including strangulation, multiple gunshot wounds to the body and head shots as well as a couple of bloody on-screen beatings. There is one slang reference to oral sex as well as a slur calling someone a homosexual. There is a brief scene of a character snorting cocaine. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Johnny Depp had been a on a bit of a losing streak recently with less than successful films such as “The Lone Ranger,” “Transcendence,” and “Mortdecai” all losing money (and in the case of “The Lone Ranger,” a great deal of money). While he can always depend on the next installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” films, due in 2017, to do well at the box office, Depp probably also needs a film that is a critical success to maintain his status as one of the most in demand actors in the world. “Black Mass” should be the critical darling that allows him to maintain his popularity among film executives. Its relatively low production budget of $53 million probably means a film that will turn a profit after worldwide distribution. This is all good news for Depp; but it also works out well for moviegoers since “Black Mass” is a riveting experience best seen on a big screen. And unlike most other releases at the local multiplex it’s a film you will think about after leaving the theatre.

“Black Mass” gets five stars out of five.

This week, hungry natives, friendly bloodsuckers and an older than average intern desire your attention at theatres; I’ll see and review at least one of them.

The Green Inferno—

Hotel Transylvania 2—

The Intern—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Reviews of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Top Five”

From a Biblical hero to a legend of comedy, this week’s movies run the gamut. In one, God is a central character while the other features no references to God at all. Each has their merits and one is far more uplifting than the other.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Moses (Christian Bale) grows up in the palace of Seti (John Turturro), Egypt’s Pharaoh, along with Seti’s son Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Moses and Ramses are cousins but have grown up together as close as brothers. Seti’s seer reads the entrails of a goat and sees a new leader emerging as one hero saves the life of another hero. This concerns Ramses as he and Moses are about to go to war with the Hittite army camped at their boarder. During the fight, Moses saves Ramses life. Seti wants Rameses to go to the slave labor camp and investigate conditions there. Moses offers to go in his place as inspecting a slave camp is beneath the future leader of Egypt. During his visit, Moses notices the overseer of the camp, Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), is living in luxury fit for a king and warns Hegep he may be arrested for stealing from the Pharaoh. During his inspection of the camp, he meets with the leadership of the enslaved Hebrews. One of them, Nun (Ben Kingsley), pushes Moses to the point of anger. He later gets a note to Moses to meet him at his home. Curious, Moses shows up and Nun tells him the true story of his birth, his being put in the basket and set adrift in the river and the sister of the Pharaoh finding him and raising him as her own. Two spies also hear the story and pass it along to Hegep. Sometime later, Seti dies and Rameses becomes Pharaoh. Hegep then approaches Ramses and tells him the story. Ramses threatens to cut the arm off of Moses’s nanny who is actually his sister and Moses admits the story is true. Moses is then sent into exile in the wilderness where he stumbles upon a village and meets Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and her father. Moses becomes a member of the community and marries Zipporah. The couple has a child and Moses settles into the life of a husband, father and sheepherder. One night, three sheep begin running up the nearby mountain. Moses chases after them despite being told God forbids anyone from climbing the mountain. A storm breaks out and causes a mud and rockslide, burying Moses up to his face. While buried, he sees a young boy named Malak (Isaac Andrews) standing in front of a bush burning with a blue flame but not being consumed by the fire. Malak is wise beyond his years and Moses realizes it is God. Malak tells Moses he needs to go back and free the Hebrews. Telling Zipporah of this, she thinks he was hallucinating due to his injuries. Moses heads back to the city despite Zipporah and his son’s objections and begins an insurrection, training the Hebrews how to fight, with the goal of setting his people free.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” takes some liberties with the biblical tale on which it is based. Some events are truncated, others are excised all together and still more are created out of whole cloth. If you approach the film as a reverent retelling of the Bible story or a modernization of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic “The Ten Commandments” you’ll be sorely disappointed. Much of the approximately 140 minute running time is spent looking at the scenery of Spain where much of the film was shot and Joel Edgerton wearing too much eyeliner. The film only really comes alive during the opening battle scene, the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Much of this is thanks to the talented computer artists who made the crocodiles that attack every boat on the Nile and each other to turn the water to blood, who created the hordes of lice, flies, frogs and locusts, and who caused the massive hail storm that batters the ancient city. Otherwise, the movie is a bit of a dull slog with the power struggle between Moses and Ramses about as interesting as watching a modern political debate.

The combination of overly stretched story and dull dialog makes “Exodus: Gods and Kings” rather emotionless. While the production hits many of the expected story points and takes an interesting look at God’s and Moses’ conversations, it does so with such a detached point of view that it makes the film feel more like an uninteresting documentary. Forgive my personal injection of opinion but these films should engender wonder and awe in the audience. While the movie is visually stunning much of the time it never actually stuns the heart. Filmmaker Ridley Scott seems to be satisfied to let the audience create their own warm feelings about the characters and the story and doesn’t sense a requirement to crank up the wonder factor. The parting of the Red Sea is impressive, especially when it comes crashing back on the Egyptian army, but everything before and after that does nothing to excite our souls. I’m not looking for a film that causes a revival to break out in the theatre. I’m just looking for something that stirs the soul and takes advantage of what should have been an uplifting story. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” doesn’t do that.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images. The opening battle scene shows people and horses being shot with arrows. There are also numerous stabbings with swords but none of it is gory. There are many dead animals in various states or decay in the film. We see numerous lambs slaughtered but again, it isn’t gory. We get a look at a piece of goat entrails but it looks more like a chicken liver. One of the plagues is boils and that is somewhat gross. There are no language issues.

The recent crop of Biblical or faith-based movies has been a mixed bag of quality. “Son of God,” while reverent, looked cheap and smacked of an effort to cash in on the success of the History Channel special from which it was edited. “Noah” turned the reluctant shipbuilder into something of a psychopath. “Heaven is For Real” was a sweet story that still managed to upset some religious groups. “Left Behind” is possibly the worst movie I’ve ever seen. While “Exodus: Gods and Kings” isn’t as bad as “Left Behind” it also isn’t as good as “Heaven is For Real.” It should have been much better.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” gets three stars out of five.

Top Five

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) started his career as a standup comedian. Becoming hugely successful, he starred in a series of comedy films where he was dressed in a bear costume and was playing a police officer named Hammy. The Hammy films were huge successes and made Allen very rich. His life became a whirlwind of TV appearances, commercial endorsements, family and friends asking for money, drugs and alcohol. He was dating reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who helped him get clean. Allen and Long are about to be married in a wedding that will be filmed as part of her reality show on Bravo. Wanting to branch out from comedy, Allen is out promoting a drama he stars in about the Haitian slave uprising. Despite his desire to move on to something more serious, people constantly ask him when he will make the next Hammy movie. Tagging along is New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) who is doing a profile of Allen. At first closed off and protective, Allen eventually warms up to Brown as she refuses to put up with his obfuscations and sound bite answers and asks why he isn’t funny anymore. He begins to tell her about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, his efforts to get sober and his daily struggle with substance abuse. She tells him she is also in recovery. Brown follows Allen all day as he picks up his wedding tux, finds out the wedding rings have been changed without his knowledge due to the reality show people, does numerous interviews about the new film with satellite radio hosts and begins to worry the film will be a flop. Along the way, secrets are shared and discovered, old friends remind Allen of his roots and lists of top five hip-hop artists are shared.

If “Top Five” has a weakness, it is that it lacks any real story. The film follows the characters as they go through a series of ups and downs over the course of a day. We see some resolutions to the various issues and problems that are brought up along the way and are introduced to the concept of fame and the price one must pay to acquire it. It is about as close as a fictional film can get to being a documentary about celebrity and what that now means in a world where being a housewife in New Jersey can make you famous. It is at times hilarious, depressing, honest, painful and joyous. Despite its lack of story, it is worth your time.

Chris Rock is essentially playing himself. While he does continue to perform standup, Rock has appeared in some movies that he admits were done just for the paycheck. “Top Five” is his attempt to make something he can be proud of and that isn’t just comedy. Rock not only stars but wrote and directed the movie. His directing style is a bit jumpy with frequent camera angle changes for scenes that might have been more effective if they had been shot from only one perspective. Still, “Top Five” is a very moving, funny and serious film. The main character is going through a crisis involving his self-worth. He thinks he can’t be funny since he isn’t drinking anymore and worries he will be forgotten if he attempts a comedy comeback and fails. He’s marrying the reality TV star because he feels he owes it to her, not because he truly loves her. He feels guilty because he’s leaving his old friends behind him when they helped him get his start. Andre Allen is a man being pulled in a thousand different directions and he’s close to breaking apart. While he puts up a veneer of confidence with a healthy dose of arrogance, Allen is concerned his career might be over. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea Brown is going through a certain bit of crisis herself. Brown is the single mother of a 10-year old girl and also lives with her mom. She hasn’t had the best luck with men and during her evening with Andre makes a discovery about her current boyfriend that ends their relationship. Brown uses fake names to write puff pieces but uses her own name for the stories she is proud of. Her pen names, she has a couple, come back to bite her late in the film. Brown is just trying to make her way in the world and would like a companion to join her on the journey. Both characters are finding the things they thought would make them happy come up a bit short. It’s a story most of us can relate to even if we aren’t famous comedians.

While “Top Five” isn’t funny throughout, it does manage to cause some serious laughs. Rock is primarily the straight man for most of the film and lets his numerous comedy friends carry most of the humor load. The number of comedians or comic actors in the film is staggering. Some may only be on screen for a few seconds while others play major roles. Still others provide a laugh or two then are gone for the rest of the picture. Some of the comedians who appear include Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, J.B. Smoove, Michael Che, Jay Pharaoh, Anders Holm, Kevin Hart, Sherri Shephard, Adam Sandler, Doug Stanhope, Bruce Bruce, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld makes a particularly strong impression as he “makes it rain” during Andre Allen’s bachelor party. The sheer number of comedians, both up and coming and legendary, must have made it a fun set to work on. While I’m sure the film was shot on a tight schedule (and on a budget of just $10-million), there are probably a couple of hours of funny material plus outtakes that ended up on the cutting room floor. When the DVD comes out, I’ll be looking for that edited material as a bonus feature. The presence of so many of Rock’s friends and colleagues must have made the often chaotic experience of making a movie just a little bit better. The comradery shows in the finished product.

“Top Five” is rated R for language throughout, crude humor, nudity, some drug use and strong sexual content. There are a couple of sex scenes in the film. One is used mostly for comedic effect. We see several women topless and the naked behind of man. There is some talk of sex outside of these scenes. There is a scene where pot is showed being rolled up and smoked. There is also discussion of using cocaine. Foul language is prevalent throughout the film.

While it certainly could have been funnier “Top Five” works as a comedy and a drama, following a man as he discovers what it is he truly wants in life. The editing is a bit jumpy and the acting is occasionally amateurish, but overall the film works to make us laugh and think a bit. It is a rare feat that those two goals are achieved in one film. “Top Five” is well worth your time.

“Top Five” gets four stars out of five.

This week, a musical orphan, a half-ling and a museum full of magic would love to entertain you during the holidays.  I’ll review one or more of these films next week.

“Annie”

“The Hobbit:  The Battle of the Five Armies”

“Night at the Museum:  Secret of the Tomb”

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send your emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.