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.
More of the same, baby. That’s a good thing in this case as we rejoin ex assassin Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his merry band of morons for another set of high caliber swashbuckling, this one even sillier than their first picnic. The key is in the deadpan humour, which is served up with all the relish needed to make something so fluffy work. Most of the eclectic cast is back for second helpings, and the ones who caught bullets are replaced by even more bankable names and familiar faces here. Moses, his girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker, finally aquiring her sea legs when it comes to warming up to the carnage) and loony old friend Marvin (John Malkovich) find themselves thrown headlong into an arms race to find a deadly super weapon before it’s either detonated or aquired by very dangerous people. Leading them along is a frazzled ex MI6 spook and mathematical genius (Anthony Hopkins in silly mode) who has seriously lost his marbles. On their tail is scary CIA psychopath Jack Horton (Neal McDonough nails yet another heinous villain role) who brandishes his silenced pistol with the same verve he uses to flash that icy grin, the last thing you see before the shooting starts. Helen Mirren returns, as does her beau, played again by Brian Cox and his teddy bear worthy russian accent. Other newcomers include Korean superstar Byung-Hun Lee as an agile and pissed off assassin out to get Moses, Catherine Zeta Jones as a foxy russian femme fatale and Professor Lupin himself David Thewlis as a snooty arms dealer called The Frog, but not for te reasons you might think. When actors of such skill and notoriety show up in these, it really makes everything else worth it, even if the plot is somewhat up in the clouds, and the mad das, rat race tone can get a bit too loopy. These pros always keep it grounded when they need to, both with shooting and acting prowess. This one can’t quite keep up with how much fun it’s predecessor was, but it’s certainly more than adequate, especially to see Hopkins, a man of trademark gravitas, give an out of left field (and his mind, really) turn worthy of Jim Carrey and not without a few disarming third act surprises.
Romance And Cigarettes is the strangest musical you’ve never heard of. Strange as in awkward, because most of the songs are just too overdone and absurd to work, but I’ll concede that that very quality makes them unforgettable, if for not quite the same reasons the filmmakers intended. Going for a sort of pseudo Jersey Boys look, they set their cluster of stories in working class New York City, focusing on a number of hot blooded Italian American scamps and the mischief they get up to, all set to a raucous medley of musical numbers, some pleasant and others pretty darn tone deaf. James Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, a rowdy blue collar construction worker who finds himself between a rock and a hard place when his long suffering wife Kitty (an even rowdier Susan Sarandon) finds out about his secret mistress Tula (kinky Kate Winslet). This seems to be the last straw for Kitty as far as their marriage goes, and it all erupts into a series of volcanic confrontations and spats as only New Yorkers can spectacularly stage. In Kitty’s corner are her three handful daughter’s (Aida Turturro, Mary Louise Parker and adorable Mandy Moore) and her helpful Cousin Bo (Christopher Walken). Nick turns to a co worker Angelo (Steve Buscemi), is scolded by his stern mother (Elaine Stritch) and receives advice from an ex military tough guy (Bobby Cannavle). The film sides with both parties for one long and often chaotic look at marriage, infedelity and extremely short tempers, peppered with songs that, like I said before, are hit and miss. Walken has the best bit (doesn’t he always?) when he gets to a rip roaring riff on Tom Jones’s ‘Delilah’ that jazzes up the film quite a bit. Not destined to go down in history as one of the best musicals ever made, but worth it for the spoofy fun had by the impressive cast.
Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, although pretty darn stylish, is just cursed with being the least engaging and unique Hannibal Lecter film out there. It’s not that it’s a bad flick, but when you have Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal and the far superior Manhunter to compete with, you’re trucking down a rocky road. The strongest element this film has going for it is Ralph Fiennes, who plays the hell out of the role of Francis Dolarhyde, the disturbed serial killer also known as the Tooth Fairy. Previously played by an introverted and terrifying Tom Noonan, Fiennes gives him a more rabid, haunted vibe and steals the show, but then he always does. Edward Norton is a bit underwhelming as FBI behavioural specialist Will Graham, sandwiched between William L. Peterson and Hugh Dancy’s modern day, definitive take on the character. Graham has the tact and luck to ensnare notorious cannibalistic murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins purrs his way through a hat trick in the role), whose help he subsequently needs in pursuing Dolarhyde. Harvey Keitel clocks in as rock jawed Jack Crawford, Graham’s boss and mentor, solidly filling in for far mor memorable turns from Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Farina and Scott Glenn. All the scenes with Dolarhyde fare best, given some truly impressive rural cinematography that sets the mood for the killer’s twisted mindset nicely. The cerebral jousting between Graham and Lecter only half works here, dulled in comparison to the crackling exchanges that Jodie Foster masterfully handled with Hopkins, who was far, far scarier back then. Emily Watson lends her doe eyed presence to the blind girl that brings out the only traces of humanity still left in Dolarhyde, Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as bottom feeding tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds, and Mary Louise Parker, grounded as always, plays Graham’s wife. You could do worse in terms of films like this, but in the Lecter franchise it falls pretty far short of any of the other entries, save for the few inspired moments involving Fiennes.
I wanted to give RIPD chance, I really did. But it’s such a shameless ripoff of Men In Black that most of it just constituted one big eye roll from me. It’s not an outright knockoff, but it just uses the unmistakable blueprint of MIB and runs with it as if it were it’s own organic idea. The veteran wiseass, the young hotshot, the clandestine otherworldly law enforcement syndicate, googly, goopy special effects, it’s all there and just feels stale these days, but for a few saving graces. Jeff Bridges is an undeniable charmer as Roy, an undead wild west super cop who is tasked with retrieving runaway souls hiding out down on earth, and capturing them for return to the great beyond, here pictured as the penultimate vision of nightmarish beaurocracy that seems oddly derived from Beetlejuice (huh). When Boston cop Ryan Reynolds is betrayed and murdered by his corrupt scumbag of a partner (a skeezy Kevin Bacon) he’s recruited by Proctor (Mary Louise Parker, all business and loving it) to join Roy in bringing “deados” back upstairs. The two don’t get along, as newly paired cops in movies always behave, and the banter only really works from Bridges’s side. He’s a hoot as crotchety old Roy, while Reynolds plays it a bit too serious, especially in scenes with the wife he left behind (Stephanie Szostak). The film earns it’s one inspired subplot when we see the human avatars the pair use to move about the earthly plane: Bridges is a knockout blonde chick (Marissa Miller), and Reynolds an elderly Chinese man played by the seemingly immortal James Hong. If they spent more time on terrifically funny ideas with potential like that and less on special effects that look like something out of the Garbage Pail Kids, they might have been on to something worthwhile. But alas, most of the film is spent on a whirlwind of silly slapstick and big gross weird things that are in no way engaging. There’s a few slap dash deado hunts, including a brief turn from Robert Knepper as one that is lured out of hiding with Chinese food (what in the..), and a big sky vortex yawner of a finale where evil Bacon tries to wreak havoc on earth. Most of the time it’s just a snooze though, save for the few times the clouds part and we get something fresh, usually from either Bridges or those to damned hilarious avatars. Shame.
Fried Green Tomatoes is one of those films that presents two narratives, simultaneously woven together and unbound by the laws of past and present. A character from the present tells tales of the past, and the film jumps ever back and forth between the two, until a connection emerges. You’ve seen it in stuff like The Notebook, where it works beautifully, and both stories support each other. That’s the issue with this film: One of the narratives is lovely and works quite well. The other? Mmm…not so much. Kathy Bates plays a hospice worker in a retirement home who is charmed by stories of life, freedom, injustice and romance from long ago, all told with wit and passion by an excellent Jessica Tandy. She tells of life growing up during the early 1900’s in the American southwest, of free spirited tomboy Idgie (a fierce and emotional Mary Stuart Masterson), the girl she loves (Mary Louise Parker, radiant) and the whirlwind of trouble and conflict going on around them. Idgie lost her brother and best friend (a short lived and very young looking Chris O ‘Donnell) to a horrible accident, and sort of has a lost pup complex, holding on to Parker for dear life and trying her best to extricate her from an abusive relationship with her monster of a husband (Nick Searcy is evil incarnate). It’s whimsical, touching and flavored with just the right touches of sadness and danger. Now, the story with Bates in the present just feels aloof and silly. The scenes with her and Tandy fare better than glimpses of her home life and attempts to empower and change her for the better. Don’t get me wrong, I love that idea, the notion of inspiration transcending time and the ability to help others simply with the spoken word and the wisdom of the past, but it just didn’t work in this case. As for the scenes in the past, I fell hard for them. Masterson is a terrific actress who usually gets saddled with light, fluffy roles, but here gets a chance to let some raw emotion out. Parker is more reigned in but every bit as soulful, as the girl in a situation no one should have to endure, her soul practically screaming out through those beautiful brown eyes. I suppose you could say that it’s half of a great film, that couldn’t quite pull off it’s own narrative flow.
Despite being somewhat neutered by the ever present annoyance of the PG-13 rating, Red is some of the most fun you can have with in the glib assassin subgenre of action comedy. Bold, hilarious and just a little bit demented, it jumps right off the pages of the graphic novel it was based on for just under two hours of wiseass popcorn movie nirvana, hosted by a cast that’s almost too good to be true. ‘RED’ stands for ‘Retired Extremely Dangerous’, a moniker given to aging ex contract killers who have laid down the guns, but are still closely watched by the CIA. Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is one such person, languishing in the doldrums of forced retirement, bored out of his mind and chatting endlessly with a cutey call center girl (Mary Louise Parker). Things get freaky when deranged former associate Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) pays him a visit, belting out wild theories about the CIA sending operatives to terminate him. Before he knows it, Frank is swept up in espionage and intrigue once again, pursued by a slick, ruthless agency man (a deadly Karl Urban doing the anti-007 shtick nicely), with Parker in tow, whose terrified reactions to the escalating violence and deadpan sociopaths around her get funnier and funnier as the film progresses. Helen Mirren is regal gold as a well spoken ex MI6 spook who dissolves corpses in bathtubs full of acid, right before afternoon tea, I presume. Watching this dainty waif rock a Barrett 50 caliber and make red mist out of her enemies is one of the many mental pleasures one can get from this flick. Morgan Freeman takes it easy as another former buddy of theirs from the older, and I imagine, more agile days. As for the supporting cast, hell, take your pick. Richard Dreyfuss is a slimy Trump-esque politician lowlife, an underused James Remar shows up for a very brief cameo, as does that old toad Ernest Borgnine, Julian McMahon once again shows that no one wears a suit like Julian McMahan, and that lovable imp Brian Cox almost walks away with the film as a sly devil of a Russian agent who woos Mirren with the silver tongued virility of a fox. What works so well the dynamic between the three leads; Malkovich is mad as as hatter, Willis plays exasperated babysitter and Parker looks on in horror that starts to turn into amusement with every outlandish scenario. Action comedies are tricky recipes, and it’s easy to let too much of one ingredient slip into the pot. This one keeps a steady trigger finger that’s locked onto the funny bone and positively sails.