“Red Sparrow”

After seeing Atomic Blonde, the Kingsman movies, and Daniel Craig’s 007 movies, the last movie I expected to see was a slow burn spy thriller that doesn’t glorify espionage. Red Sparrow is that revisionalist spy film!

Dominika’s (Jennifer Lawrence) ballet career ends after she breaks her leg on stage. In order to take care of her ailing mother (Joely Richardson), she becomes a Russian spy called a ‘Sparrow’ – a master in seduction and manipulation. She then meets CIA operative Nash (Joel Edgerton) and falls for him, despite him being her new target. Will Dominika complete her mission or go rogue?

Red Sparrow has a lot of controversy surrounding it due to its sexual and physical violence. This is disturbing and bleak film, but I admired it. I normally hate movies that feature excessive sexual violence and torture; however, Red Sparrow kept me intrigued because it uses that content to debunk the spy genre. These spies don’t drink martinis and seduce the princess after stopping world domination! They’re traumatized and broken afterwards.

There’s no glorification in watching Nina seduce her would-be rapist classmate in front of their class. There definitely isn’t glorification in watching someone get skinned alive. Instead, Red Sparrow explores the uncompromising nature of being a spy. Dominika is trained to be soul less, so she has to seduce and torture. She doesn’t want to, but she needs to for her survival. Frances Lawrence’s (no relation to Jennifer) slow burn direction adds more tension to the violent scenes in Cronenberg-like fashion.

Jennifer is committed in her performance as Dominika and continues her streak of fearless performances. She at times plays a convincing survivor, but also has calculated moments. Is she playing both sides? Or looking out for herself? Her relationship with her incestuous uncle Ivan (a creepy Matthias Schoenaerts) adds more complexity to the film, not only exploring abuse, but gender politics and control. Ivan clearly has an infatuation for his niece, so it’s not surprising if he’s using his power to get closer to Ivanka. Ivanka’s cat-and-mouse game with Ivan takes some surprising turns that will discomfort and surprise viewers.

While Red Sparrow is gory, fascinating, and haunting, it’s also occasionally silly. There’s an extended sequence involving Dominika and a drunken US politician (Mary-Louise Parker) that derives from the film’s tone, briefly turning the film into a buddy comedy. Parker is a nice comedic relief, but it’s an additional twenty minutes that serves no purpose to the story.

Screenwriter Justin Haythe has come a long way from his previous film (the equally ambitious-though-awful A Cure for Wellness). Haythe has a point with his grisly content this time, but he can work on shortening his scripts. Still, Red Sparrow is a daring thriller that treads on both political commentary and exploitation film.

Grade: B

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“Mother!”

The brilliant Darren Aronofsky is obsessed with three topics: religion, obsession, and surrealism. Mother! is a psychotic depiction of the three.

An unnamed couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) live in a countryside rustic mansion. She’s obsessed with remodeling the home while he’s obsessed with overcoming writer’s block. When a series of uninvited guests including a dying man (Ed Harris), his alcoholic wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), their dysfunctional sons (real-life siblings Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), and an unhinged publicist (Kristen Wiig) disrupt their paradise, things escalate to pure insanity.

Mother! is already the year’s most controversial film due to its metaphorical screenplay and gruesome finale. Kudos to Aronofsky for not caring if we love or hate this polarizing film.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Mother! is a surreal commentary on religion and the environment; Lawrence is Mother Nature focused on her paradise while Bardem is God writing a biblical novel. When Bardem’s following disrupts and wrecks their home, Lawrence’s character grows increasingly unstable, symbolizing a disaster.

The film is full of allegories and and the final thirty minutes covers the fall of man and christening of Jesus. If you thought Aronofsky couldn’t top the amputation and “ass-to-ass” sequences in Requiem for a Dream or the transformation sequence in Black Swan, guess again! The climax features burglaries, an orgy, a rave, an armed raid, and the most disturbing cannibalism act put on film. It’s a visceral finale that left me exhausted and nauseous.

As ambitious and transgressive as Mother! is, I wasn’t completely blown away since it’s similar to Aronofsky’s previous works. Lawrence’s character is both insecure and obsessive like Natalie Portman’s Nina in Black Swan. Unlike Black Swan, our Mother! protagonist doesn’t have depth or growth. I felt tired of watching her trying to please everyone and yelling over the destruction of her home.

Bardem, Pfeiffer, and Wiig all have the best on-screen moments. Bardem is charismatic and devilish as our unnamed poet; he’s possibly the film’s most tragic character. Pfeiffer delivers a potential career-reviving performance as a guest that doesn’t understand boundaries. She’s funny, invasive, and slightly terrifying. Wiig only has a few minutes of on-screen time, but shows great range in such little time. She’s funny, quirky, deranged, and homicidal; I hope Wiig gets more horror roles.

I recommend Mother! to the arthouse film lovers and Aronofsky fans. Those expecting a traditional horror film will be disappointed since Mother! is not that at all. Those who are easily squeamish, you better stay away from this one.

Grade: B+

“X-Men: Apocalypse”

I chuckled at a semi-meta quote in “X-Men: Apocalypse;” when Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) exits “Return of the Jedi,” she utters, “At least we can all agree the third installment is the weakest.” Because “Apocalypse” is the weakest of the new “X-Men” trilogy.

“Apocalypse” takes place ten years after “Days of Future Past,” and Professor X (James McAvoy) has turned his house into the Mutant Academy. Meanwhile, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has settled down, whereas Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is a mutant anti-hero, rescuing troubled mutants and starting new lives for them.

The trio are of course brought together when a god-like mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) surfaces and recruits mutants for world domination. This brings us to an introduction to a young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as well as a reunion with Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Havoc (Lucas Till), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

It’s safe to say that while “X-Men: Apocalypse” is the weakest one of the new trilogy and very mediocre, it’s not the worst of the franchise (that goes to “The Last Stand”). The first half suffers from the most problems.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The first half of the film is all buildup and exposition, but it lacks focus and steady pacing to keep it interesting in most of the segments. Magneto’s story is by far the most interesting, as we understand why he’s reverted back to his old ways. The second half feels much like “Days of Future Past,” and I mean that in a good way.

Quicksilver once again has a visually impressive and fun sequence, stealing the show from everyone; this scene even tops his scene in “Days of Future Past.” For those who saw the trailer and caught a glimpse of Wolverine’s scene,  that sequence tops his mansion fight in “X2.” There are also some innovative and surreal sequences reminiscent of “Inception” that take place inside Professor X’s head, which is funny because those sequences were originally supposed to be in “First Class.”

Acting wise, the main cast does a great job as usual. I was impressed with Turner and Sheridan’s portrayal of Jean Grey and Cyclops as the angsty young lovers who stand by each other. Sadly, Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Apocalypse and the character’s development were disappointing.

Apocalypse is a less entertaining version of Ultron from “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” These two have the same goal: recruit a group of followers, destroy the world while making their followers believe they’re saving it, and find a new body? It’s the same motivation as Ultron! Isaac also lacks charisma in this performance, and it’s sad because this is Poe Dameron from “Star Wars.”

Another small nitpick I had was that “First Class” was a spy movie and “Days of Future Past” was a time travel movie, so both had very thick plots and broad ideas; however, “Apocalypse” is simply a disaster movie, so there isn’t as much imagination as there could have been. Yet I was still entertained because of the cast and a few memorable sequences. Kudos for that!

Grade: B