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Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Upon leaving the theater, our own Captain HE gave the film a "nine out of ten" and later added in writing: "Riveting, well-acted, thoroughly entertaining with a fabulous cast. Here is a movie that does not rely on digital enhancements to carry a story. Jennifer Lawrence is formidable. Please try not to think of any parallels relating to current U.S. political situations. TRY!"

When retired CIA operations director Jason Matthews wrote Red Sparrow and its follow-up books, Palace of Treason and The Kremlin's Candidate, he either knew some things before the rest of us did, or he was damn lucky in choosing the experiences he decided to fictionalize out of his 33-year career.  The CIA, of course, had to approve the book and the script, and they loved it, as described here:  The film seems like the script from the Robert Mueller investigation, and despite its "R" rating, the storyline and the fact that it stars Jennifer Lawrence and an amazing cast, its popularity should be through the roof.  Strangely, whereas most American films do much better in the US than they do overseas; Red Sparrow's foreign box office amounts to nearly twice its American earnings, even beating out Black Panther in some markets.  It is a strange scenario, but more on that later, now for the film:

Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a prima ballerina for the Bolshoi, famed and thus supported by the ballet company and the government.  During a performance one night, her male lead trips, falling on her with his full weight, shattering her leg. Her career ended, she is about to lose both her apartment and medical coverage, which assists her chronically ill mother (Joely Richardson).  Enter Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), an administrator in the Russian intelligence service who makes her an unsavory offer. She’s to serve as a honey trap for a man of interest, an abhorrent offer to her, but she has no choice.  Vanya has other, more sinister plans, though, and the plan turns violent and bloody and forces her deeper into his clutches.

Cut to a dark and foggy park, and CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is about to make an exchange with a Russian double agent, known only as Marble.  Unfortunately for them, the police unwittingly stumble upon their transaction.  Nate has to beat feet, scrambling frantically to the border where he has to ram through guards and leap into the American sector, his cover blown.  He is led to the offices of his handlers (played by a grim Sakina Jaffrey and a wry, amused Bill Camp) where he pleads for another chance.

Thus begins a double narrative: as Nate struggles to get back to the field, Dominika is "recruited" to enter Sparrow school where she will learn both world-class espionage and prostitution. Sparrow school students are uniformly young, physically strong, and beautiful.  Their curriculum is overseen by grim academy supervised by a severe Matron (Charlotte Rampling).  It is here where politically correct critics have taken issue as Dominika endures the extremes of punishment and degradation, but it is here where their myopic viewpoint becomes blurred.  The extremes to which Dominika is subjected become the springboard from which she takes control of her fate through sheer force of will and her nascent gifts—athleticism, intelligence, a brutal nature, and a preternatural gift of reading people's intentions.  She is well aware that she is a woman in a man’s world, but she doesn't beg sentimentality--even though Dominika is sentimental about her mother.  Matron certainly isn't sentimental; she dislikes Dominika's independent will, but she acknowledges her talent, and soon the former prima ballerina is sent into the field.

Vanya meets with his superior, Zakharov (Ciaran Hinds) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and decide to send Dominika as a honey trap to entice Nash into revealing the identity of Marble.  Here, the narratives of Domenika and Nate combine and intertwine; we become witnesses to manipulation and double-crosses, games both are playing that we see but do not fully understand until all elements come together in surprising and satisfying fashion.

Red Sparrow is a blend of the Bourne films and John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, much better than the fun but mindless Atomic Blonde.  Although it has action, it is not an action film. Rather, it is an old-fashioned spy film with intrigue that keeps the audience thinking, guessing, and on its toes through its full 2:20 runtime.  In other words, it predictable doesn't play well to many of the clickbait critics that infest Rotten Tomatoes.  Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) has not made a classic, but Red Sparrow is a damned good film.  Beautifully shot in Budapest, Vienna, and London, with a superior international cast that includes, in addition to those already mentioned, Mary-Louise Parker as another intrigue-peddler and Sergei Polunin as the Bolshoi male lead.  The romantic chemistry between Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Lawrence isn't there, but it might be even better that Matthias Schoenaerts' lascivious Uncle Vanya does spark with Dominika, a perversion that fits in with the whole seamy world of espionage.

And of course, there is Jennifer Lawrence.  You've heard us extol her talents loudly and often; allow Manolha Dargis, film critic of the New York Times to describe the actress's contributions better that we can:
"As she does, Ms. Lawrence goes all in, seamlessly meeting the movie’s physical demands — whether she’s dancing onstage or crawling in blood — while turning Dominika into a character who grows more real with each unreal scene. ...  It helps that Ms. Lawrence, like all great stars, can slip into a role as if sliding into another skin, unburdened by hesitation or self-doubt. Craft and charm are part of what she brings to this role, as well as a serviceable accent, but it’s her absolute ease and certainty that carry you through “Red Sparrow.” She was born to screen stardom, and it’s a blast to see where it’s taking her."

Unfortunately, it may not take her into the further exploits of Dominika Egorova.  In addition to the aforementioned critical obstacles others, some willful, some mere fate, have stood in its way.  Fate intervened when Red Sparrow's release put it up against the Black Panther juggernaut.  It didn't help that we are currently in a time when people are most sensitive about violence against women, despite the fact that RS is based on real-world events, and it shows its protagonist, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) overcoming her plight and turning the table on the patriarchy (much like Lisbeth Salander did in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).  But those hurdles are matters of bad timing.  Willful human intervention created a perfect storm of opposition against Red Sparrow: First, on RS's opening weekend, the online ticketing hub MoviePass blocked subscriber's from purchasing tickets and still have offered no explanation. Still, film studios don't care about reasons or excuses, and they don't care how great a movie is or that it is headed toward $100 million overseas; their only concern is the domestic bottom line.

Still and with all, we heartily recommend Red Sparrow.  Our group loved it, so we will end with a comment from our own Serfing Dude, who left the showing calling it the best film we had seen in a while (and that included Black Panther and Annihilation): "It was better than I expected and I did anticipate it to be better than some of the critics were saying. It kept me guessing throughout and allowed for some clever surprises. It was an intriguing look at the spy game and given the present issues concerning Russia in the geopolitical realm, a very pertinent movie. The cast was outstanding, led by J-Law."
8.5 out of 10 for Artistic and Entertainment merit.

Films Released in 2017: A Final Word

Closing the books on 2017
-- by FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher, with contributions from the usual gang

Despite the fact that they took place nine weeks into 2018, last week's Academy Awards marked the end of Awards Year 2017 for Hollywood.  It was a sobering year, marked most notably by the Weinstein scandal and its aftershocks that shook the film industry to its core.  Out of the ashes has arisen a movement for gender equality in Hollywood that for the first time may go beyond lip service and become a commitment.  Aiding that is the reality that the top acting talent today is largely female; harming that is the reality that box office is still dominated by males.  Example: the Rock earns more per year than Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, and Emma Stone combined.  Now, we truly like the Rock and his movies, but please.  Still, we believe (hope?) the ripple effect will go far beyond the film industry and into society as a whole.

2017 also brought a revelation: we detested the black hole created when the Star Wars universe rebooted and hogged all of the holiday box office from better, but smaller, films, but we have to admit that there was one positive effect.  Some of the best and most enjoyable movies fled to the far reaches of the calendar.  Six of our top 15 films, including Get Out (February 24) and Dunkirk (July 21) came out at times usually reserved for dreck or popcorn fare.

Anyway, what follows are our Top-15 films of the year, followed by the best remaining films in separate categories, totally arbitrary ones (invented by the totally arbitrary Guy S. Malone, Researcher).  We do this year to year, based on the movies we have seen.*

* Disclaimer: We see around 50 movies a year, but our record for catching foreign films and documentaries hovers somewhere between embarrassing and abysmal (I will now don my cilice in repentance) so you won't see those categories here.  Also, in the land of King Scrapple, some of the best films zip through town so fast that by the time we get from the house to the theater they are gone.  For those, we call on the gang of movie serfs to apprise us.

15 BEST FILMS OF 2017:

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri - cool, bombastic crime thriller; best of the year

Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan's totally new take on the war film: nonlinear, with no stars

Get Out - Jordan Peele's breakthrough film stunned us with his satirical take on race relations

mother - Darren Aronofsky's Creation to Apocalypse allegory not meant for the popcorn crowd

Darkest Hour - Lily James and Ben Mendelsohn join Oldman as Oscar-worthy

Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig's coming of age film charmed the critical community and moviegoers

The Shape of Water - A treat for the senses, but more liked because we ought to like it

Call Me By Your Name - Luca Guadagnino and James Ivory crafted a beautiful LGBT tale

The Post - Spielberg cake with Hanks, Streep, and a terrific supporting cast icing

- Scott Cooper and Christain Bale reunited in this simmering Western character study

Baby Driver - Don't judge a film by its title; Edgar Wright's hyperkinetic heist movie

The Big Sick - Culture clash, mortal stakes, and memorable performances elevate this rom-com

Detroit - Kathryn Bigelow excels in depicting war; the Algiers Hotel incident is war

The Phantom Thread - gorgeous film and performances, hampered only by a weird romance

Mudbound - Sundance darling was every bit the breakthrough that Get Out is, but less fanfare


Action/Adventure Recommended:
The Lost City of  Z- Historic drama with Charlie Hunnam as Amazon explorer Col. Percival Fawcett
American Made - Action-comedy with Tom Cruise as pilot Barry Seal, embroiled in Iran-Contra
Logan Lucky - Steven Soderbergh's rural Oceans 11 with the Charlotte Speedway as the mark
Wind River - Taylor Sheridan thriller; FBI agent and tracker investigate murder on a reservation
Good Time - Robert Pattinson, a small-time crook's crazy night, trying to get his brother out of jail

Science Fiction and Fantasy Recommended:

Blade Runner 2049 - Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins reunite in stunning fashion
The Last Jedi - the best Star Wars entry since The Empire Strikes Back (damning with faint praise)
Beauty and the Beast - Vivid, energetic live-action remake with Emma Watson, Dan Stevens
Personal Shopper - Olivier Assayas' moody ghost story, starring his muse Kristen Stewart
Okja - Young girl and fascinating beast defeat multinational capitalists in Joon ho Bong's fantasy
Kong: Skull Island - Kong meets Apocalypse Now, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson

Superhero Recommended:
Wonder Woman - Got a lot of early raves, but not enough to elbow into Oscar nominations
Logan - Original Screenplay nominee depicts end of an era with top X-Men Wolverine and Prof. X
Spider-Man Homecoming - Exciting, funny reboot with Tom Holland as the best Spidey yet
Thor: Ragnarok -  Laughs and action as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) saves Asgard from Cate Blanchett
Guardians of the Galaxy - A notch below the original, but still fun as the Guardians discover family

Films That Invoke the "mother! Warning": The following films will force you to think & question your belief system--they are NOT recommended for the popcorn crowd.
The Little Hours - Based on stories from the Decameron, Aubrey Plaza & Co are profane and funny
Ingrid Goes West - Aubrey Plaza again stretching boundaries, this time as a social media mental case
The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Yorgos Lanthimos' sins of the father parable is brutal and absurd
Beatriz at Dinner - Holds a mirror up to the ugliness of Ayn Rand capitalists and their sycophants
I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore - depressed woman recruits odd neighbor for retribution

The Meyerowitz Stories 79 - Finally, a good excuse to see an Adam Sandler movie, and no one did
Colossal 70 - Monster destroying Seoul psychically connected to US alcoholic (Anne Hathaway)
Their Finest - Propaganda film team boosts British spirits post-Dunkirk in this dramedy
LBJ 54 6.5 - Woody Harrelson as Pres. Johnson, driving through the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Circle - Sci-Fi fun with Emma Watson as a worker bee for charismatically evil Tom Hanks

Disappointments (S
econd disclaimer: We only see movies for which we have decent expectations, so even our disappointments are great art when compared to a lot of stuff out there.)
The Florida Project - Willem Dafoe's presence almost (but not quite) overcomes obnoxious children
Murder on the Orient Express - With Branagh, this looked like a sure thing. Stick with the '74 version
Victoria and Abdul - Even with Judy Dench and production values, this remains pedestrian
Kingsman: The Golden Circle - could've gone Monty Python route, regrettably chose Transformers
Life - Alien reimagining has cool cast and flash, but somehow it turns out dismal
The Great Wall - Multiple strategic blunders; Matt Damon should've given this one to Casey Affleck

Animated Recommended:
Coco - Runaway animated hit of the year
Ferdinand - Classic children's tale finally brought to the big screen
The Breadwinner - Strong-willed Afghani girl provides for her family
The LEGO Batman Movie - The LEGO movies are always better than we expect
Loving Vincent - The visually stunning oil-painted film covers for an OK story

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