“Red Sparrow” Review


I am so sick of films that consist of two hours of their female lead being subjected to horrific abuse yet have the gall to promote themselves as tales of feminist empowerment. Red Sparrow is the latest nauseating example, as Jennifer Lawrence’s character is beaten, raped, tortured, stripped, exploited, and prostituted but comes out the other end a stronger woman. Rather than making me any stronger, I only came out of Red Sparrow furious that what I had just seen could be considered entertainment.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a famous dancer in the Bolshoi ballet whose career is ended by a tragic accident. Left with no income to support her sick mother, she’s quickly recruited by her sinister uncle to the Sparrows – a team of sexy spies who specialise in seduction to gain access to their targets. The logic of using a famous dancer as a spy is never really addressed, even when multiple characters recognise her from her dance career, but that’s only scratching the surface of the problems with this premise. “The Cold War never ended”, notes Matron – the Headmistress of Sparrow School, and I’ll certainly concede that Francis Lawrence’s directs his Russian characters like they’re taking part in a propaganda video from the 1950s. United in their embarrassment of playing Russian caricatures are two British actors (Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling), an Irish actor (Ciarán Hinds), a Belgian actor (Matthias Schoenaerts), and of course American sweetheart J-Law. When Australian Joel Edgerton shows up playing an American CIA agent I began to suspect the director was playing some sort of elaborate joke with his cross-cultural casting, but no – like everything else about Red Sparrow, the endless English-speaking Russians were played without any sense of humour or self-awareness.

To her credit, Jennifer Lawrence’s Russian accent sounds consistent and accurate without being distracting, and she brings her usual commitment and natural screen-presence to her role, but despite her accomplished filmography I never got the sense that she was cast for her acting ability. One of the first things we hear about the Sparrows is that they’re selected for their beauty, and the camera wastes no time drooling over Lawrence’s revealing costumes or bare skin. Yes, Dominika does object to her treatment at the hands of her superiors, but simply addressing it doesn’t make Justin Haythe’s screenplay any less guilty of subjecting the characters and the viewer to all the abuse that it decries. It was during a lengthy torture scene of Joel Edgerton’s character, coming shortly after a lengthy torture scene of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, that I gave up any hope of Red Sparrow having a point. It seems like Francis Lawrence was aiming to make a stylish and confronting espionage thriller, but like the grey and muted cinematography of the Russian landscape the whole thing just feels cold, cruel, and lifeless. The only relationship that feels warm and real is between Dominika and her mother, and we see maybe four minutes of them together. Every other interaction is muddled through twisting allegiances as Dominika starts to play both the Russian and American agencies off each other, but her plans only work because of such boundless stupidity from both sides that I frankly didn’t care who won as long as it meant the film would be over.

I’ve seen worst films than Red Sparrow but I can’t remember the last one I hated this much. I’ve sat through more sexually explicit movies with no objection, and I’ve delighted in works with much more extreme violence. I’ll even defend Mother!, which faced its own accusations of undeserved cruelty towards Jennifer Lawrence’s character, as at least there I felt that Darren Aronofsky had something to say. Red Sparrow just seems to want to see how much physical torture and sexual assault its audience can sit through, and by doing so reveals itself to be nothing more than a worthless piece of exploitative propaganda.

½ a star.

“The Square” Review

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I find it more than a little bit amusing that the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, a festival that (deservedly or not) has a reputation for promoting subversive and confronting art films, was a picture satirising the attempts of a museum to create subversive and confronting pieces of art. Nearly every aspect of the art scene is skewered in Ruben Östlund’s The Square, from exhibitions that accidentally get swept up by the cleaning crew to performance art pieces to end in physical assault, and much like any good artwork seems more concerned with provoking discussion than providing a simple explanation. This is a film that asks questions that I don’t have the answers to, and I’m not even entirely certain I understood the question, but I’m still thinking about them long after leaving the theatre.

Despite marketing that emphasises the roles of American stars Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West, The Square largely follows the day-to-day life of Christian (Claes Bang) – the curator of Stockholm’s X-royal art museum. Despite his stylish and trendy appearance Christian is first seen passed out on the couch in his office before conducting an interview where he struggles to explain his own vague quote regarding a previous instillation. Things don’t get much better for him when his wallet and phone is stolen on the street through a con that qualifies as a rather clever piece of performance art in its own right, while the marketing team working on the titular exhibition bemoan the lack of any controversy that would cause it to go viral. What I found interesting is how throughout Christian’s problems Östlund takes the time to focus on various members of Stockholm’s homeless population, who are either ignored by Christian or used for his own purposes. It effectively demonstrates the gap between the lower class and the upper, particularly those in power who claim to be making art that speaks for the ignored and unrepresented without any idea of how to actually interact with them. This theme becomes more evident as The Square progresses and Christian engages in a spectacularly ill-conceived plan to retrieve his stolen goods, while the advertising for the new exhibition receives the controversy the marketing team was hoping for.

Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, demonstrated the director’s knack for the uncomfortable that is again demonstrated here. The camera will linger on characters as they dig themselves deeper with pathetic acts of desperation or misunderstood interactions, and scenes extend well beyond the point where the viewer would expect them to finish. A post-coital argument between Christian and Elizabeth Moss’s character is possibly the funniest argument about condoms ever put on screen, and an excruciatingly long sequence of Terry Notary performing as an ape at a black-tie dinner could serve as a brilliantly provocative short film itself. As The Square progresses the gorgeous production design and elegant cinematography that is so striking at first seems to fall away to reveal the shallowness and emptiness of Christian’s life, with Claes Bang masterfully exposing more of his character’s vulnerabilities and insecurities as the film progresses.

Throughout its lengthy two hour twenty minute runtime The Square explores topics as ranged as homelessness, social media, the class divide, bystander syndrome, the role of art in society, freedom of speech, casual sex, and more. Not every scene relates to the overarching story, and indeed certain moments are never brought up again, and yet not a single moment seems wasted – throughout it all, The Square always feels like it has something to say.

4 Stars.

“Winchester” Review

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It’s always a shame when a movie based in reality ends up being less interesting than the actual events. Such is the case with Michael and Peter Spierig’s Winchester, a film that takes the bizarre true story of Sarah Winchester and the Winchester Mystery House and turns it into a run-of-the-mill haunted house picture that seems to only exist to cash-in on the success of better movies like The Conjuring or Insidious.

Dame Helen Mirren inexplicably plays the title role of Sarah Winchester, the widowed heiress to the fortune accrued by the sales of Winchester rifles. Convinced that her family is cursed by the spirits of all who have been killed by those guns, Lady Winchester now spends all her time constructing new rooms in her elaborate mansion to keep the more violent ghosts locked away. Construction on the house is occurring at all times, with new rooms being ordered based on the trance-like visions that come to Sarah each night. This means that Oscar-winner Helen Mirren spends a significant amount of the feature flailing around, rolling her eyes, and yelling into the air as she converses with the ghosts around her. I have to assume that Mirren either needed the money or just wanted an excuse to come to Australia to agree to this role, as while her sheer presence is almost enough to elevate some scenes beyond the flatness of the script I could almost see her stop trying as the supernatural elements overpower any sense of character. Fortunately she spends most of her time draped in a black veil so could presumably palm things off to her stand-in when she couldn’t be bothered.

The job of trying to add in an emotional story instead falls to psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who has resorted to poisoning himself with both alcohol and actual poison after being injured in an incident that also took the life of his wife. Doctor Price is bought in by the Winchester company to assess Sarah’s mental health and determine whether or not she should remain majority owner, and as a rationalist remains completely unconvinced of the presence of ghosts throughout the house. This scepticism is hard enough to accept when he sees a ghost after roughly half an hour in the house, and becomes frankly absurd after he brushes off the fourth decayed face screaming at him before vanishing into thin air. I’ll admit that one or two of these ghoulish jump-scares startled me, but in much the same way a carnival ghost-train is capable of making me jump. There was no lasting tension or suspense, and instead of feeling spooked on my walk home in the dark I was just frustrated by how inconsistent the spectres of Winchester are. They’re locked away in certain rooms – except for when they appear out of nowhere. They want revenge on Lady Winchester – except when they don’t. Certain characters can see them – except for when they turn invisible. At no point does it seem like the Spierig brothers actually knew what they wanted to do with this film, instead just relying on what they’d seen done before.

It’s infuriating as they had enough pieces to make something great; with an interesting real-life premise, stunning production design on the house from Matthew Putland, and an interesting role for their talented leading lady; but no idea of how to properly use any of them. The real Winchester Mystery House has over one hundred rooms yet here we only see about a dozen, possibly because the budget was too low to afford any more. I was surprised when Winchester got to its climax if only because I didn’t think anything had actually happened and assumed we still had about an hour to go, but was more than happy for things to wrap themselves up by that point.

1 and a half stars.

“Game Night” Review


Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a very competitive couple. Everything about their relationship – from their meeting, engagement, and marriage – involves some sort of game or contest between the two, as established by an entertaining opening montage that quickly sets the tone of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night. Part of Max’s competitive nature stems from constantly feeling inferior to his older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a problem that isn’t helped when Brooks comes into town and suggests throwing Max and Annie’s weekly game night at his new place. The game suggested by Brooks involves a member of their group being suddenly kidnapped, with the winner being the first player to find them. Sure enough, armed men soon burst into the room and kidnap Brooks to the amusement of everyone in the room, who are completely oblivious of the fact that he’s really being kidnapped.

Mark Perez’s screenplay offers a clever premise with plenty of potential for unique comedic moments, and like the best game nights keeps the rules fairly simple to instead let the players (or audience) just enjoy the company they’re in. Joining Max and Annie are Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), high-school sweethearts who realise over the course of the night that they haven’t been as faithful to each other as they thought, and Ryan and Sarah (Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan). Ryan is their moronic friend trying to defend his own intelligence by bringing an older, smarter woman than his usual game night dates with the witty and British Sarah. Admittedly I found Ryan’s stupidity a tiring character trait, stretching credibility and raising questions of why anyone in the group bothered to spend their time with him, but Sarah’s bemused acceptance of the night’s events does balance him well. Lurking in the shadows is Jesse Plemons as Officer Gary, a frighteningly intense man who used to attend the group’s game nights with his wife but is left out after their separation. Plemons plays his character more like the lead suspect in a Law and Order episode than a supporting role in a comedy, and the delightfully uncomfortable humour that comes from his interactions with the rest of the cast make for one of Game Night’s strongest selling points.

Game Night is largely built on the chemistry between Bateman and McAdams, with Bateman’s finely honed deadpan humour addressing some of the more absurd moments while McAdams, a captivating screen-presence in any genre, brings a joyousness to even the darkest situations. The scene when Annie has to remove a bullet from Max’s arm brings the biggest laughs as the two treat the task in front of them like a morbid round of ‘Operation’. Daley and Goldstein cleverly make much of the film feel like part of a game, employing clever CGI to make the establishing shots resemble figures on a board or turning serious moments into elaborate matches of keep-away or charades.

Unfortunately the rules do become a bit too complex as Perez’s screenplay tries to throw countless twists and turns into the final act, and it was around the point that Max and Annie are driving a car through the wheels of a moving plane that I started wondering what had happened to the simple premise I’d been enjoying so much for the first hour. The supporting cast are so strong that when they’re unceremoniously pushed to the side for the climax the film does lose the mix of camaraderie and competition that had moved things along so smoothly at first, even if Bateman and McAdams are strong enough performers to keep things relatively grounded as the stakes become increasingly overblown. Even if the plot does lose sight of itself towards the end, Game Night manages to stay as fun and entertaining at the name suggests. This is very much a film that should be watched with a group of friends on a night out, and I’d definitely be up for another night in these characters’ company if a sequel comes along.

3 and a half stars.

“Black Panther” Review

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Early on in Black Panther the title character’s resident tech genius and sassy younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) justifies improving his gear by saying “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” This attitude seems to be the prevailing view behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately, as the blockbuster studio continues to demonstrate willingness to fit new voices and styles into their well-established franchise. For the eighteenth film in the series, director Ryan Coogler has brought together a primarily black cast and infused the fictional country of Wakanda with aspects of different African cultures to infuse Black Panther with a different energy while still retaining the action, special effects, and humour of its predecessors.

After making his debut in Captain America: Civil War Chadwick Boseman returns as Prince T’Challa, inheriting the title of King after the death of his father. T’Challa spent much of Civil War on a revenge-quest so his first solo outing gave Coogler and fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole an interesting opportunity to flesh his character out and expand his personality, but he still ends up feeling a bit flat. It’s nothing to do with Boseman’s performance, who brings ample amounts of charisma and power to the role, and more to do with how he keeps getting upstaged by his more interesting co-stars. Letitia Wright steals all the dialogue scenes as his teen-prodigy gadgeteer, bringing boundless enthusiasm to every creation she makes like a mix between James Bond’s Q and a YouTube star. Meanwhile the focus of the action scenes is quickly stolen by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the leader of T’Challa’s personal bodyguards and a fighter every bit as capable as the Black Panther himself without the need for the mystical herb that gives him super strength and agility. It’s noteworthy that both of these characters are women, as Black Panther is chock full of strong, intelligent, and badass women of colour without feeling the need to draw attention to it. It’s a welcome example of how times are changing, and we’re getting some fantastic characters out of it. Poor Martin Freeman ends up looking particularly out of place for much of the film as the Everett K. Ross, the required outsider who can have Wakandan customs explained to himself (and by extension the audience), but will surely help bring the characters of Black Panther into the superhero free-for-all that will be the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars.

Excepting Ross’s role and a few scenes with Age of Ultron’s Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkins), Black Panther manages to keep its story fairly self-contained against the broader Marvel Universe. The villain, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, keeps his vendetta primarily to Wakanda and T’Challa himself, even if the conflict does naturally increase to something world threatening to justify an appropriately explosive final battle. Killmonger stands out against other Marvel villains for having a motive beyond simple “Take over/Destroy the World”, instead wanting to hold Wakanda accountable for its wealth and technological advances while other African countries languish in poverty and black people around the world are mistreated. In a rarity for superhero films I actually found myself agreeing with the villain at times, and I commend Black Panther for not being afraid to tackle uncomfortable questions and allowing both sides of the argument to make valid points. Obviously they still have to keep Killmonger clearly in the antagonist role to foster T’Challa’s growth and justify a final fight between the two, but thanks to Jordan’s committed performance and the writing of his character there is a genuine sense of pathos around him that hasn’t been seen in many other Marvel villains.

Ryan Coogler, fresh off the brilliant Rocky reinvention Creed, keeps Black Panther filled to the brim with both style and African influences. Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack mixes tribal drums, hip-hop hooks, and the typical superhero fanfare, which along with Kendrick Lamar’s original songs had me enjoying the music so much I’d forget to pay attention to what was happening on screen. While the fight sequences may lack the same visceral punch the boxing matches in Creed had, cinematographer Rachel Morrison has the camera flowing around the characters in slow motion as they gracefully perform extravagant stunts like running up buildings and whirling through car wrecks. These stylistic touches serve to distinguish Black Panther from other Marvel pictures on the surface, but at its core it does still fit within the Marvel mould. I’d love to play all of the MCU films at the same time and see how many of them simultaneously hit certain emotional beats. Yes, it’s basic story structure, but Marvel has been following the classic three-act structure so religiously that you could basically set your watch by when the film hits its darkest moment. For all the Black Panther does different it’s clear there are some things Marvel is unwilling to change, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and post-credits teasers.

Black Panther isn’t the first superhero movie to have a black lead, not even the first based on a character from Marvel comics (I haven’t forgotten you, Blade), but it’s undoubtedly a milestone in mainstream cinema to have a film that celebrates black culture so openly. It also demonstrates why these things are worth celebrating, as when you get different voices like Coogler or Thor: Ragnarok’s Taikia Waititi to handle blockbuster films you get different types of blockbusters. It may have taken Marvel a while to figure that out, but if they’re able to keep their films feeling this fresh after 10 years then it’s a lesson well learned.

4 stars.

“Lady Bird” Review

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Oh, the joys of being an Australian film fan. Getting to watch from afar as a film like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is released in American cinemas back in November, gathers up critical acclaim, Oscar nominations, and other awards, all while patiently waiting until mid-Feb for it to get wide release down under. It’s a relief to finally see it and realise that not only is Lady Bird not let down by the advance hype, but is an emotionally authentic film worth waiting for.

Set over the last year of high school for Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), Gerwig’s screenplay tackles many familiar topics of the coming-of-age drama. There’s the high and lows of high school relationships, the awkwardness of losing one’s virginity, arguments with parents who just don’t get it, the craving to have cooler friends, the inevitable high school prom, and throughout it all the constant desire to make your own name for yourself (literally in Lady Bird’s case). Films like Lady Bird remind us that the reason so many movies are able to revisit these moments is because even if we all experience these milestones differently, we can’t help but experience them. Despite having an entirely different background than Lady Bird herself I found myself revisiting my own memories of performing with the school theatre department, developing wildly passionate crushes on my classmates, and particularly all the times my careless actions had hurt my parents. Lady Bird’s complicated relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is at the heart of the film, with the two women too similar in the strength of their personalities to ever have a civil conversation for longer than five minutes. It’s a volatile and deeply passionate relationship that forms one of the most accurate depictions of the mother-daughter dynamic since Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge.

Saoirse Ronan has been a phenomenon on screen since her breakthrough role in Atonement and she once again demonstrates a knack to lose herself in rounded complex characters. In lesser hands Lady Bird could have been a pretentious and unlikable protagonist, almost a parody of youth self-indulgence and righteousness, but Ronan and Gerwig present her best and worst qualities equally. Like all teenagers she’s insecure and vulnerable, with every emotion amplified and threatening to burst out. Through Metcalf’s performance I got the sense that Marion McPherson was once the same, but is now too proud to show how much she’s struggling to keep the family afloat financially after Lady Bird’s father loses his job. The arguments between the two are personal and devastating, but there’s a deep love underneath it all that makes Lady Bird emotional without being depressing. Tracy Letts’ understated performance as Larry McPherson helps, as he unobtrusively tries to bridge the relationship between the women in his life.

Located primarily within Sacramento in 2002, Lady Bird makes a powerful point towards the importance of setting within films. So much time is spent exploring the various ‘uncultured’ aspects of the town that frustrate Lady Bird that when we see brief scenes of New York towards the end it feels almost like a different country. Gerwig enhances this with minor details that help make Lady Bird’s world feel real and lived-in, such as when she steals and eats the communion wafers from her catholic school while gossiping with her best friend, or hangs out with the popular kids in the middle of a gravelled parking lot. Special mention must be made of April Napier’s costume design, as Lady Bird mixes various old and worn pieces of clothing purchased from thrift stores. It both expresses Lady Bird’s style and individuality while emphasising the financial strain burdening Marion, brilliantly evoking the personalities and motivations of both the film’s main characters.

Greta Gerwig demonstrated her ability to write believable people struggling to find their direction in life with her screenplays for Frances Ha and Mistress America, and with Lady Bird marking her first solo directing role she proves herself able to bring to life her stories as well as she writes them. It’s rare to find creators with voices as honest as hers, and it makes a film like Lady Bird feel like a gift I’m increasingly grateful to receive.

5 stars.

“Insidious: The Last Key” Review

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Why do ghosts always have to make things so difficult for the living? One would assume that if you were a spirit stuck in some sort of purgatory you’d be happy to find someone like parapsychologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) to talk to, but even the helpful ghosts in Insidious: The Last Key can’t seem to communicate without popping up from the dark and screaming at her. If they just calmly explained themselves they’d be able to deal with their problems much easier. Much like the other films in the franchise, the fourth Insidious is very much a haunted house picture that reliably delivers everything that premise entails. Expect lots of wandering around in the dark, surprise appearances from spooky longhaired ghosts, and revelations of dark secrets, but most of all you can expect to comfortably forget most of the film after an enjoyable enough hour and a half.

Insidious 4 sits in an odd place in the series, serving as a sequel to Chapter 3 and a prequel to the first film. I guess this is what happens when you kill off the best character at the end of Insidious 1. Thankfully Shaye is willing to keep coming back, as her warm and comforting presence does lend an air of credibility to some (but not all) of the most ridiculous scenes. She is once again joined by her tech team, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell). The return of these comic-relief characters, who weren’t particularly funny in the original and aren’t particularly funny four films later, is less appreciated but somewhat inevitable when one of their actors, Whannell, is writing the screenplays and giving his own character self-serving heroic and romantic moments. This time round the team visit Rainier’s childhood home in order to deal with a demon that Elise inadvertently released into the world when she was a girl.

The demon, creatively named ‘Key Face’, is an admittedly interesting monster design and another creepy performance from horror regular Javier Botet (It, Mama, Alien: Covenant, The Conjuring 2) but is never really given any explanation by Whannell’s screenplay. While too much backstory can rob a monster of its scaring power, so little is ever revealed about The Last Key’s main antagonist that it has no real impact beyond jumping out and shouting ‘boo’. Instead the story focuses on numerous flashbacks to Elise’s past, which regularly repeat the same moments over and over to ensure no one has missed the important parts or blatant foreshadowing and guarantee the movie reaches its ninety minute runtime. Many of the scares are rehashes of scenes from the first film, and director Adam Robitel seems to be just leaning on the same tried-and-test filmic techniques James Wan established in the first two films and perfected with The Conjuring. Cameras pan slowly around corners, monsters are kept out-of-focus in the background, and faces appear unexpectedly over shoulders. It’s a good thing The Last Key finishes right where Elise’s story intersects with the first Insidious, as there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for this franchise left to go.

2 and a half stars.