Lawrence Trades Arrows for Stoic Sexuality in 'Red Sparrow'

Directed by: Francis Lawrence; Runtime: 140 minutes
Grade: B

Almost overnight, Francis Lawrence went from being "the guy responsible for a bland Omega Man remake" to "the director who made a (debatably) better Hunger Games film than the original", taking the helm of the popular young-adult franchise spearheaded by Jennifer Lawrence. A significant part of why Catching Fire turned out as well as it did was because director Lawrence engages the psychology of a headstrong yet traumatized woman, someone who's been forced to endure harrowing situations involving violence and death that, in one way or another, were of her doing. The duo aims to hit a similar blend of suspenseful action and mental torment with Red Sparrow, which puts Jennifer Lawrence in the position of a recruited cover agent for the Russian government shortly after her character endures truly disturbing circumstances. While it's exhilarating, bleak, and daring in how it explores sexuality as a weapon, the nature of the story keeps deeper examinations of the main character at arm's length, producing an absorbing reluctant-spy thriller whose expressive layers never completely catch fire.

The sparrow here -- yeah, I know, the bird nicknames are a little much one right after the other -- is Dominika (Lawrence), an ex-dancer who was abruptly knocked out of the Bolshi ballet company. In her period of grief and realization afterwards, and while wrestling with new financial troubles, Dominika gets approached by a relative (a debonair Matthias Schoenaerts) to join Russian Intelligence, effectively making her a spy. After enduring and adapting to certain complications in her first "assignment", she's sent off to train to be one of the "sparrows": spies specifically chosen for their physical or sexual attributes. Her training hones both her powers of seduction and her threshold for indecency and passion, making her the ideal candidate to sniff out the identity of a mole among the Russian government's hierarchy, which starts by her building a relationship with Nash (Joel Edgerton), a rough-around-the-edges and now-identified CIA operative. Motives shift, and allegiances come under question as she works to achieving her mission.

Classic, almost archetypal circumstances bring Dominika into the spy fold, yet whether that's the product of familiar storytelling or the impacts of having an ex-CIA employee -- Jason Matthews, also the source book's author -- as an active creative force behind Red Sparrow can be unclear. Financial troubles, medical bills, and ailing parents provide commonplace motivations for the young woman to essentially be forced into a world of espionage, while the bitterness stemming from her failed career choice has that same kind of quasi true-story mundanity to it. The pathway to Dominika becoming involved with Russian Intelligence may earn degrees of base sympathy, but it's not terribly inventive in how it does so, and perhaps that's a good thing. Instead, the somewhat monotonous real-world texture of her backstory doesn't get in the way of how her desperation and spite evolve alongside the moving parts of her introduction to espionage, providing a foundation for the weapon that she's to become.

Teetering on the line between graphic violence and harrowing themes must've been a lot for the Lawrence-Lawrence duo to take in The Hunger Games, because Red Sparrow gives them the chance to push much further than they've gone before, especially when it comes to the boundaries involving sexuality and violence. The content does become graphic early and throughout, involving instances of rape and humiliation that'll be uncomfortable for some -- most? -- viewers; however, the bleakness of the story's viewpoint on lost innocence and the corruption and weaponization of sexuality becomes a compelling thematic driving force. Under the tutelage of an appropriately stern Charlotte Rampling, training to become a "sparrow" ends up being the crux of Dominika's character development, in which the caliber of her physique becomes what's perceived to be the only tool left at her disposal, keeping her world afloat. Watching how she takes the dynamics of sexual aggression and twists them into true instruments of power can be both mesmerizing and disheartening, where one admires the steeling of her resolve but also laments what she endures and loses along the way.

Thus, Dominika ends up being cold and detached, expressing little of the personality that lies underneath the clinical operative that leaves the sparrow training facility. That becomes a complicated aspect of Red Sparrow, in that this becomes less of an examination of her character and more about observing what said character becomes in the wake of her world being ravaged and broken to a point of no return, providing a unique challenge for Jennifer Lawrence. There are subtleties in her performance as Dominika charges into the gauntlet of her real assignment, in which the character dispatches her new arsenal of psychological tricks without being completely hardened by her experiences, where glances, twitches, and quakes in dialogue offer momentary glimpses at the person she once was. Lawrence displays bravery -- both physical and emotional -- in the chain reaction of sequences that get her into the field as a "sparrow", and through an on-and-off tolerable Russian accent portrays a woman who both channels and restrains ferocity while gathering intel, getting close to Joel Edgerton's stock CIA-operative, and doing a little sleight of hand.

Much like the circumstances leading into Dominika's acceptance into the Russian spy program, the hunt for a mole and the manipulations between competing spies come together into mundane plotting for Red Sparrow, though that's somewhat par for the course with "everyday" bouts of espionage. While the script fabricates tension through unnecessary physical obstacles and bad decisions made by those outside the world of espionage -- Mary-Louise Parker turns in a peculiar cameo as an informant drunk out of her mind -- the bravado involved with how director Lawrence executes torture sequences and connects the dots of several underlying mysteries offset those shortcomings in credibility. Again, Red Sparrow isn't intriguing because of what's happening, but in how Dominika manipulates the events with the tools now at her disposal, as her motivations and allegiances appear to remain fluid all the way until its cunningly arranged finale. It's gripping to watch her decide that she's going to be the sparrow, yet that transformation lacks dramatic poignancy without a clear perspective on an earlier version of herself.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

'Fencer': Familiar, Yet Still a Historical Underdog Contender

Directed by: Klaus Haro; Runtime: 99 minutes
Grade: B

Sports dramas have this inherent poignancy that, more often than not, relies on two cinematic features for their success: either the effortless emotions of an underdog story, or the insights and unique context involved with depicting a sport that isn't so mainstream or regularly featured on the big screen. The options are starting to dry up, though, as there's only so many ways that the underdog story can be told and a finite number of unseen sports that can have a spotlight pointed on them. The Fencer slips in and manages to deliver a bit of both, depicting a post WWII-era youth sports club that resorts to the ancient art of sword-dueling in the absence of other athletic resources, revealing bits about the learning process involved with the sport, how its dangers are perceived, and how they factored into the political climate of USSR-occupied Estonia. While the maneuvers of its David vs. Goliath narrative might be familiar, the pacing, atmosphere, and raw spirit involved with bringing it to life mostly evades those recognizable traits.

In hopes of avoiding detection by Soviet's "secret army", ex-soldier Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi ) flees Leningrad for the small town of Haapsalu, Estonia, where he takes an instructor's position as the head of an athletic club for pre-teen children. Once there, he realizes that his post will involve bureaucracy from the school's principal and a lack of resources due to waning prioritization of the children's physical education, hinged more on keeping everyone under control and being good Soviets than enriching their lives. Frustrated, and with an athletic background of his own, Nelis decided to act on an idea that doesn't require much more than sticks and learned movements: to establish a fencing club for the children. The students' interest in the club ends up being more substantial than he had planned for, eventually leading them to grow interested in a competition taking place in … Leningrad. Ender Nelis is forced to choose whether he should risk his own well-being so the children might engage their ambitions and prove themselves.

The full authenticity of the recount might be disputable, but Endel Nelis was a real and esteemed fencing coach in Estonia, and The Fencer hopes to capture that semi-true story appeal with an almost docu-drama essence to the work. Austere, faded-color cinematography beautifully captures the sparseness of the school's halls and cramped domiciles of the Estonian town, which almost immediately surrenders to the energy of the children -- even during their first session -- as they start to embrace the physicality and artistry of the sport. The chronology of The Fencer can seem jumpy, advancing in time to progress the children's capabilities and interest levels, but this also lends immediacy to the meeting point between Endel's past and present. If there's a downside to the swift progression, it's that the attention paid to the students gets focused onto two individuals instead of an even dispersal across the whole fencing club, which can be significant when it comes to the film's themes about inspiring youth.

The Fencer zeroes in on depicting Endel Nelis and his impact upon the children, as well as the dilemmas involved in his establishment of the club and his decision about whether to compete in Leningrad. A spare, low-simmering emotional performance from Mart Avandi allows the instructor to take shape as a wounded, yet resolute byproduct of the pre-WWII era, someone who resolves their desire to retreat and attempt to life a normal life with sacrificing himself for the betterment of his pupils. While the pursuit for brevity persuades Nelis to transition and make choices with less effort than they probably should -- whether to teach children how to swordfight; whether to defy the school administration; whether to request supplies from across the border -- they also form into a heartening study of his traits. It's the relationship that forms with those two aforementioned students that become the film's expressive cornerstones: his bond with sweet, blond-haired Marta (a steadfast Liisa Koppel) spurs his desire to teach, and the pre-teen son of a local woman questions why a master fencer would be teaching them in the first place.

Director Klaus Haro does an admirable job of concealing the inevitability of The Fencer, but especially with this story's particular tempo, that's almost impossible to do. One can only hope that the fencing itself becomes engaging enough to hold interest in the throughline, and luckily the execution of the sport stays quick-witted and resourceful throughout, amplified by the immaculate photography that carefully observes the footwork, the lunges, and the space surrounding the opponents. Despite having seen this tale play out before in different contexts and characterizations -- Daniel LaRusso's angsty square-offs with the Cobra Kai; Rocky Balboa's rags-vs.-riches determination to brawl Apollo Creed -- The Fencer nails this sport's uniquely clever and delicate suspense once it reaches the competition phase in its penultimate act, less dramatic parrying and more swift reflexes and operating against the clock. Informed but not overburdened by the resolution of Eldel Nelis' flight from the Soviets, it lands blows as both rousing underdog fiction and a credible glimpse at fencing during a tense moment in history.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

Classic Musings: My Cousin Rachel (1952)

This may seem like common sense, but it occasionally deserves a reminder: the nature of the performances in a film can change the entire fabric of the storytelling. Under better circumstances, My Cousin Rachel should play out as a clever glimpse into the machinations of a widow with unclear motivations, whose interactions with her deceased husband's family could lead her either toward malicious intents or toward her being misjudged by those around her. Conversely, the viewpoint of the young heir to this estate would benefit from more consistent skepticism, since the story's tone leans into that doubting atmosphere. This adaptation of a 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier loses those intentions, though, despite the efforts of Oscar-recognized talents and a gloomy setting, where instead of indistinct motivations and shifting perceptions, the plot plays out more like a character examination of an easily-persuaded mark and hardships utterly of his making.

The owner of a substantial English estate, Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) has taken his young cousin, Philip (Richard Burton), into his home after the death of his parents. They lived well over many years, creating a strong family bond between them, well into points when Ambrose starts having health issues. Yearning to avoid the harsh climate, he travels abroad to Italy without Philip -- now a man in his mid-20s -- where he finds himself stranded away from his estate due to a degradation in his illness. Confusion emerges when Philip receives odd letters from his cousin about the care he's receiving, to which Philip later discovers that he had died. During the process, however, Ambrose had found someone that he loves in Italy and decided to marry her, bringing the ownership of the estate into question. When Ambrose's wife, Rachel (Olivia de Havilland), arrives to the estate after a prolonged period of keeping her distance, Philip's skepticism about her motivations takes hold … but so does his sense of empathy, as well as his own fond feelings for the "middle-aged" woman.

My Cousin Rachel begins slowly and deliberately, illustrating what life's like at the Ashley estate before and during Ambrose's vacation abroad. There isn't much development to Philip's character, shifting gears from the curious boy of his youth to the older-than-he-looks chap embodied by Richard Burton, yielding someone whose traits are largely indistinguishable from other naïve, skeptical, semi-hotheaded men of privilege in their 20s. Burton's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but the reasons for that struggle to be seen in his responsiveness to learning of Ambrose Ashley's death, which default to uninteresting histrionics that do little to enrich the mystery involved with the issues his cousin encountered overseas. His relationship with godfather and estate manager Nick Kendall becomes a more intriguing facet of this early period, mostly due to how Nick micromanages the young Ashley's impulses and imparts knowledge about his cousin's hereditary ailments.

Under the veil of Joseph LaShelle's beautiful shadowy and stone-textured cinematography, youthful rage and skepticism fuel the lead-up in My Cousin Rachel, to such a degree that one still yearns to know more about this mystery widow and how Philip will respond when he's eventually confronted by her. Alas, the moments when they finally meet also becomes the turning point into the film's complications, fueled by an unpersuasive mild-mannered performance from Olivia de Havilland, whose overly amicable, buttoned-up demeanor doesn't jibe with the vagueness of her character's interests. Here, these don't read like the mannerisms of somebody who could be a misunderstood widow caught in tricky circumstances, but like the façade that's projected when someone's trying to conceal their true intentions as they get in the good graces of others. When the circumstances are as suspect as they are involving Ambrose's death, this entity needs to be an influential dramatic force if ambiguity's the intention, and Olivia de Havilland's turn as Rachel lacks the swaying power to make that happen.

Therefore, when the puzzle pieces fall into place and the "twists" play out in My Cousin Rachel, the surprises aren't found in the revealed truths of characters' objectives, but in Philip's obliviousness as his headstrong distrust quickly morphs into generosity, affection … and ignorance. Dramatic lighting and musical cues attempt to punctuate moments of realization and frustration between the cousin and the widow, but the inherent trickiness involved with the push-and-pull of ownership over the estate undermines the film's crucial mysterious streak. The swiftness of how the powers of persuasion take hold in Henry Koster's execution undercut the story's gothic romantic suspense, worsening as the ramifications of those persuasions shape where the plot goes after that. Unlike how the harrowing psychological elements and quick relationship-building were so effortlessly applied to Daphne du Maurier's writing in Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Rebecca, Koster's handling of My Cousin Rachel lets those crucial transitions fall by the wayside, and it drags those desired ambiguities down with them.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]