I really didn’t want Red Sparrow to be the dud everyone says it is, but.. yeah it is. I mean, I’ve got love right off the bat for a hard R rated spy flick released by major studios, and this one earns it’s R rating so much so that it’s nasty business to sit through. I just wish it had the aptitude to be more than a cold, unremitting series of events that go far beyond unfortunate. More than anything I’m just proud of Jennifer Lawrence for taking on such a dangerous, vulnerable role, she’s a natural born star and any project she’s attached to is lucky to have her. She just had the shitty luck of her immense talent being drowned in a sea of sadism and ultimate boringness here, which is a shame. Playing a Russian ballet dancer who’s career is cut short by an injury, her shady pervert uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her for Sparrow School, a twisted spy academy that focuses on sex as a weapon, where she undergoes rigid, perverse training under the stern watch of Matron (Charlotte Rampling, terrifying). This is all run by the government in secret, and soon she becomes involved in a confusing cloak and dagger operation involving American agent Nate (Joel Edgerton), which frequently sees her in degrading, sexually violent situations that seem a bit excessive after a while. I’ll always champion R rated films and there’s some wicked bloody action here involving her training, but the lurid psychosexual stuff is kind of sickening and seems tacked on like a pornographic sheen. The cast is alarmingly first rate, with work from Joely Richardson, Ciaran Hinds, a bored looking Jeremy Irons and a drunken cameo from Mary Louise Parker. No one seems to really fit into the story though and the film struggles to hold our attention beyond just being in shock and actually giving a shit about the story, which is grey and lifeless. It also can’t decide on it’s setting either; everything about the film screams 70’s/80’s Cold War era, until Rampling’s character refers to the West as fixated on shopping and “social media”, which sounds suspiciously like a line that was added in reshoots to try and update a preexisting setting, the worst kind of continuity error because it’s deliberate. There’s literally not a single cell phone visible at any time!! Cmon guys, get your shit straight. It’s sad because there’s a lot of sumptuous atmosphere here that goes to waste, as does a magisterial score by James Newton Howard. The biggest crime here though is how great Jennifer Lawrence is in the role, and how royally the film just lets her down. She’s resilient, tough and smart running down a gauntlet of predators, assassins and danger, but none of that is as good as it sounds, and she deserves better.
No other film has the seething elemental power of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, a detective story propelled by a murder mystery, all the while cradled in the sweaty, unnerving blanket of a satanic horror story. Get the extended unrated cut if you can, as it cheerfully amps up both the queasy gore and kinky sex in spades. The time is postwar 1940’s, the setting New York, or at first anyways. Shabby private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by sinister clandestine gentleman Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a missing lounge crooner named Johnny Favourite, for nasty reasons shrouded in thinly veiled threats. Harry is stalled at every turn, kept just out of the loop on every plot twist and soon seems to be a magnet for violence, troubling hallucinations and all the eerie hallmarks of a case he should have stayed far away from. The grisly clues lead him from Brooklyn to the smoky ghettos of Harlem, then south to voodoo soaked swamps of Louisiana and beyond, chasing illusory information and feeling more like the hunted than the hunter with each step. The film feels at times like a shrinking steel cage of unease and dread, a trap that closes in on both Harry and the viewer until the soul crushing revelations of the final act have been laid bare. This is hands down the best work Rourke has ever done, and it’s priceless listening to him try and to downplay it on the DVD commentary, classic ice cool Mickey. De Niro is the kind of quietly dangerous that leaves a deadly vacuum in the air of each scene, underplaying evil expertly and laying down more mystic mood by simply peeling a boiled egg than most actors could with a twenty page monologue. Ex Cosby Show darling Lisa Bonet sauces up her image here as a Bayou voodoo princess with ties to the mystery, and the steamy, no holds barred sex romp she has with Rourke has since become the stuff of legend, a feverish cascade of blood and other bodily fluid that almost gave the MPAA a coronary. The one area this film excels at most is atmosphere; there’s something intangibly wild about everything we see, hear and feel on Harry’s journey, from the supernatural tinged, noirish hues of Michael Seresin’s cinematography to the haunted, hollow tones of Trevor Jones’s baroque, restless original score, everything contributes to forging a world in which we feel enveloped in and can’t quite shake after, like a bad dream that creeps out into waking life for a while after the night. Angel Heart is a horror classic, a blood red gem amongst genre fare and one in an elite group of films that are pretty much as close to perfect as can be.
Immortal: Ad Vitam is comic book based high fantasy that wasn’t handed a budget big enough to sustain it’s visual dreams, and sadly as a result is the oddest looking thing ever, like a cross between a screensaver and an early 90’s video game cut scene. Set in some distant surreal future where ancient Egyptian gods (who may just be extraterrestrials) rule over a stylized New York City full of mutant humans, it’s a striking yet incomplete vision. When god Horus is sentenced to die, he descends from a giant floating pyramid in the sky and searches for both a male human host to carry his essence and a female one to bear a child, continuing his holy lineage in case he gets caught. Or… something like that, it’s a weird ass movie. German actor Thomas Kretschmann plays Nikopol, a prisoner who escapes cryo-incarceration after a ward malfunction, now on the loose and playing host to Horus, who’s thoughts he can hear in his head. A rogue doctor (Charlotte Rampling) has discovered a girl (Linda Hardy) she deems a genetic anomaly, also catching Horus’s attention. Now, the creator of the comic book, Enki Bilal, is also credited as director and seems to be adapting his own work, but it’s a shame that he didn’t strive for proper funding in order to sell the visual effects, because as it is now I can’t even give the film a decent rep simply based on the kindergarten level CGI that permeates the whole thing and pulls you right out of the story. It’s sad because the story has such promise, it’s really a creative blast with some unique ideas, and the human actors hold their own, especially Kretschmann, but they’re afloat in a pixelated, ill rendered botch-job of a visual palette and it’s quite a drag to have to sit through. Some of the cityscapes look reasonably polished, but as soon as we zoom in and see gods or human/animal splices walking around it’s cringe time. I will say that effects aside they’ve created a terrifically eerie atmosphere though, truly otherworldly, dreamy Blade Runner style aura that helps quite a bit. Perhaps one day they can go back with money, a team and fix all the potholes so one can truly enjoy this potentially great film. Until then, it’s a bit hard to take seriously as a whole.
Tony Scott’s Spy Game is a kinetic yet heartfelt espionage thriller that sees the director maintain considerable shards of his assaulting sensory overdrive of style, whilst pausing along the way for a story that is really rooted in the personal story of the bond and friendship between two men. A lot of his films are predominantly visual and auditory, a bullet train of sound and fury, with plot and characterization as passengers onboard. Here those elements are cogs in the machine, resulting in a very touching, extremely exciting outing and perhaps the director’s most overlooked piece. Robert Redford used to be the younger, more naive faction in a lot of cinematic pairings, especially with Paul Newman. Here he flips the coin, taking on the grizzled mantle of both father figure and mentor to Brad Pitt. Pitt is Tom Bishop, an operative taken under the wing of veteran agent Nathan D. Muir (Redford). Nathan no doubt sees some of himself in the lad, and takes a shine to him, grooming him with all the skills and cunning that a lifetime in the business has given him. Life throws curveballs though, and more often than not they involve love. Bishop has gone rogue in an attempt to rescue relief worker Elizabeth Hadley (the brilliant Catherine McCormack, who needs to be in more movies) from a Chinese prison. In his eagerness he is captured, leaving Muir to make some tough decisions, pull some hidden cards and use all of his talent and resources to extract them. Now in many films like this there would be several blistering action set pieces to show how it’s done. Scott instead chooses to give Redford the intellectual grit and subversive genius to pull hidden strings and come up with a wicked fun solution that is endlessly more satisfying than an explosion ridden shock and awe campaign. His struggle to get his friend back is laced with flashbacks of his training, with a 70’s flavour that feels authentic and writing that lovingly builds the blocks of their dynamic. Stephen Dillane provides wonderfully understated work as a quietly smarmy CIA prick, and watch for a quick appearance from the great Charlotte Rampling. To see Scott’s frenetic aesthetic hired for a script that takes its time and plays out less like a conventional thriller and more like the paced, elliptical spy thrillers of years past (vaguely reminiscent of aspects of Le Carré) is a somewhat rare treat. Terrific thriller with Redford at his best, highly, highly recommended.