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Review: Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow never gives fateful or conspicuous weight to all the breadcrumbs that point toward its long game.

2.5

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Red Sparrow
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow is at its most deliciously ludicrous across a series of scenes set inside the Sparrow School, where young men and women like Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) are trained to seduce Mother Russia’s enemies. The school’s matron, played by Charlotte Rampling, is in the business of creating spies for the country’s police state, and after bombarding her students with broadsides decrying the West for its “sentimental moralism,” among other things, she gets to work. Any given day’s lesson plan seems to be spontaneously inspired. Take the girl who reflexively refers to a prominent political figure in Russian society who was caught on camera in a compromising position with another man a “degenerate,” which is the matron’s cue to unbelievably drag the politico, now a prisoner, into the room and have the girl kneel before him and ready herself to go down on him.

The Russia of this film plays to the stereotype of the country as a place where virility would appear to be a mandate. Here, Vladimir Putin’s perpetually dreary home turf is still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the country’s foreign intelligence agency, the S.V.R., is devoted to the use of sexual degradation to create runway-ready human automatons who will help Russia to reinvent its geopolitical identity. You may wish for a more sophisticated take on the country’s state of affairs, or maybe just a more concrete sense of Dominika’s actual opinions of Mother Russia’s embrace, until you remember that this espionage thriller—opening in the doldrums of February—isn’t trying to be The Americans. Red Sparrow isn’t in the business of schooling you so much as it is in stringing you along, and it does so in often rollicking fashion.

Dominika is a ballerina whose career comes to a gruesome halt during a performance, after which her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking S.V.R. official, provides her with evidence incriminating the peers who planned her injury. After approving of her revenge tactics, which involve Dominika turning her temporary cane into a bludgeon, Vanya sets out to test her mettle against the state’s enemies. Soon she’s sent to Miss Rampling’s School for Sexual Enigmas, where of course she makes an incredible impression on S.V.R.’s higher-ups in spite of doing almost nothing according to script. In Red Sparrow’s best scene, Dominika is asked to give the classmate who tried to rape her the day before exactly “what he wants,” at which point she proceeds to do the exact opposite. First she takes off her clothes, and after spreading her legs, Dominika figuratively cuts him down to size by obsessively fixating on his flaccid member—a power play that tells you everything you need to know about this fiercest of Red Sparrows.

Soon, Dominika is hopscotching back and forth between Russia and Budapest, put on the tail of a C.I.A. agent, Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), who was once stationed in Moscow and immediately senses that she purposely tipped him off to her real identity. But to what end? From Russia, Vanya and his cronies—the ever-somber Alexei (Ciarán Hinds) and part-time ushanka spokesman Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons)—keep tabs on Dominika’s efforts to ingratiate herself with Nathaniel in order to apprehend a mole within the S.V.R., while the C.I.A. attempts to use the newly minted Sparrow to catch a traitor within the U.S. government’s own ranks. There will be secret exchanges, break-ins, torture chambers, and slaps to the face, and there’s a brisk efficiency with which Red Sparrow zig-zags from plot point to plot point, never giving fateful or conspicuous weight to all the breadcrumbs that point toward its long game.

The filmmakers may keep Dominika at arm’s length from the audience, but Jennifer Lawrence makes hay of having to play a walking enigma. The way that Dominika is at once completely transparent and at the same time impossible to read is Red Sparrow’s most intriguing through line, not least of which for the way that Lawrence makes you grasp the canny mental gymnastics that her character has to do in order for everything that she says to be at once truth and obfuscation. The actress constantly operates in a less bludgeoning register than the film, which is only really concerned with the matter of Dominika’s allegiances and how the mechanics of the twisty plot keeps that suspense percolating. Lawrence provocatively regards us as her only allies, tipping us off in the subtlest of ways to the reality that Dominika’s only allegiance is to the blunt force of her avenging body.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Douglas Hodge, Thekla Reuten, Sergei Polunin Director: Francis Lawrence Screenwriter: Justin Haythe Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 139 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video, Book

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

3

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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