-Reviews of Red Sparrow, Thoroughbreds, and Mute
Director: Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games 2-4, I Am Legend, Constantine, Water for Elephants)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 47%
Jennifer Lawrence and director Francis Lawrence team up again after Francis directed Catching Fire, and Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 for ‘The Hunger Games’ series over the last few years. While his effort on Catching Fire was a much-appreciated and steadied improvement over the first film’s under-budgeted shaky camera, the Mockingjay films showed a complete inability to elevate a pretty tepid book’s dramatic backdrop. Red Sparrow is the same, where the film often looks nice or has a sleek scene or two, but then bounces into either cliches or just general offensiveness which was unappreciated.
Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika, a ballerina who loses her career after a grisly leg injury. She makes a near full recovery, but likely can’t dance again. She is recruited by her Uncle (Schoenaerts) to become part of Russia’s Sparrow program, where she is trained to be a seductress and spy. Her mission?: To finagle information from a U.S. spy (Edgerton) in Budapest.
There are parts that occasionally work in this movie. The action scenes are good, the torture scenes are good. I bought the Russian hierarchy presented in this movie. I didn’t buy, really, anything else.
Dominika is not trained in combat, she is not trained in persuasion. She is sent to what she calls “whore school.” That’s essentially what this is. Maybe this movie was made before the MeToo movement really took roots, but this feels like exploiting and degrading a decent actress and decent character without actually moving a cohesive plot forward. I’m all for sexy movies, but this was just disgusting and degrading in parts, and there were some scenes that made me feel uncomfortable. That’s not what the movie was going for. It was going for a sleek, sexy spy feel. Instead, it just feels a little pathetic and outdated. It should take some clues from Atomic Blonde from last year.
It’s a shame that so much of the movie’s decent material was wasted on unneeded boundary-pushing. Lawrence plays Dominika very close to the chest, and it is tough to get at her motivations. At one point, she was presented with three options (U.S., Russia, or something in between) and I wasn’t entirely sure what she was going to do or how she was going to do it. Edgerton may be a little miscast, but I’m a big fan of his and I was okay with his pretty bleak demeanor.
This movie, at the end, looks nice. It has some good performances, and a slew of good character actors positioned in the Russian government that we get to meet. That stuff is cool, and there’s a 45 minute chunk in the middle where it feels like the movie finally caught its rhythm before derailing again. It’s too long, and again, I just feel like a lot of the degrading, disgusting stuff that the movie presents us are unnecessary. Go ahead and watch it and try to convince me that the stuff at “Sparrow School” was useful at all? I’d rather see the movie promised in the trailer: where she becomes a combat-spy, learns to become sexy and confident also, and navigates some kind of interesting political playing field. That doesn’t happen.
Director: Cory Finley (X)
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, and Francie Swift
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Imagine if The Lobster‘s Yorgos Lanthimos decided to direct a teen film. That’s what you have with the utterly bizarre Thoroughbreds, a film that can’t decide what genre it wants to be. It’s tongue in cheek, embraces really dark, black comedy, and also plays with horror movie music and cinematography to make the entire structure feel off-center. This movie is a ton of fun.
It starts when one of our two central characters Amanda (Olivia Cooke from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) gets in a really horrific, bloody horse accident. News spreads around town that she’s a bit odd and off. She has to spend time outside of school. She also may not be able to feel emotions.
So her mom starts paying her former best-friend turned popular girl Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy of Split and The Witch) to tutor her to help with all of the classes she’s missing. The two start to reconnect (sorta), and set a wild plan in place to murder Lily’s abusive step-father Mark (Paul Sparks).
The film is from first-time filmmaker Cory Finley, who I’m now excited to follow as he does more work. The film sometimes feels like a play in that there are a lot of pivotal, bizarre conversations done entirely in these immaculate, stable sets. The style of the film is very predicated on focusing on the expensive knick-knacks contained in the home, and we really only branch out into real cinematography when following the characters around narrow, poorly lit hallways. This all occurs, along with the establishing shots, under the guise of very tense, horror-movie music, even though the film is totally not a horror movie. It wants to make our characters seem more insane than they are. The conflicting style is really refreshing, and there’s a unique voice to this movie.
Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are both great, and are both rising actresses who will only continue to get more exposure. I didn’t love Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, but I thought Olivia Cooke was probably the best part in it, while Anya Taylor-Joy was excellent in The Witch and Split over the last couple of years. These two girls have a weird, psychotic chemistry with each other and it really works. The way the ending resolves these two character arcs is great. I loved the last few minutes of this movie, also.
It’s not perfect, mainly because there’s a few deviations from the style when Anton Yelchin gets involved that I didn’t really appreciate. When the movie decided to get serious, I thought it betrayed its whole style a little bit. Rest in Peace Anton Yelchin, who died last year. This may be his final screen appearance, and it’s sad. He’s fine in this, it’s just that his character felt like it was from a different movie.
I would thoroughly recommend Thoroughbreds for people who like an odd, off-putting tone. Just don’t go in expecting a true thriller. It’s a black comedy with some horror/thriller tropes thrown in.
Director: Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft)
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, and Robert Sheehan
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 13%
Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie, dedicated this movie to his dad after his recent passing. The dedication slide before the end credits is one of several bits of information about this film which would lead one to conclude that this movie was a really important passion project for Jones, the writer-director of the film. While it’s commendable to make a movie like this, especially due to the clear ambition behind the project, sometimes these passion projects are tough to criticize because its clear that the director was so passionate about the subject matter that he didn’t have a very discerning eye when making adjustments to the movie. This is a movie that clearly needs a re-working and some serious changes in structure and pacing, but instead ended up being an expensive release which went straight to Netflix a few weeks ago. I commend Netflix for buying up projects, helping with financing, and then having a release on the small screen, but this year has made it very clear that the straight-to-streaming avenue may mean death for a movie. Bright, Cloverfleld Paradox, this, and also a Jared Leto vehicle called The Outsider released a few days ago were all panned by critics.
Alexander Skarsgard is Leo, an Amish middle-aged man who suffered an accident during his childhood that left him mute. He has migrated away from his family, instead staying in Berlin as a bartender with his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), who also works at the same bar. Naadirah, however, has secrets, and she ends up disappearing one night. This leads Leo down to the criminal underworld of a futuristic Berlin, where he runs in to a few AWOL army doctors (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux), who are involved with the mob.
This movie is completely an exercise in noir, from the plotlines about the mob to the silent and brooding tone. The problem is that the characters aren’t interesting and the pacing is unbelievably slow. After Skarsgard was really great in HBO’s “Big Little Lies” last year, they’ve totally taken out any of his charisma or screen presence with having him play this fish-out-of-water, silent character. I’m all for an actor having range, but they’ve stripped him of what makes him interesting to watch on screen. The central character has to be more than just a conduit for the audience, they need to have something special about them. There’s no great protagonist to root for in this unfamiliar and often jarring world.
Speaking of actors’ range, I’m a fan of Paul Rudd, especially when he goes into his weirder side, like when he played Tayne the Entertainer and gave us a Hat Wobble. Paul Rudd does his best to save this movie, but even he can’t put enough personality in this thing to keep it from feeling like a complete drag. You also start hating his character, not because he’s a villain, but because he forgives Theroux’s character for being a legitimate pedophile. Like what?
Either way, passion project or not, this Blade Runner-influenced science fiction slog is not worth your time.
Next Week: Tomb Raider, Love Simon, and either A Wrinkle in Time or an independent film.