Category Archives: Film Reviews
“Red Sparrow” is like some of the Cold War thrillers they made in the 90s but with higher resolution and a female lead. It takes to task the idea of power and uses it as a structure mechanism for Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominica, a Sparrow forced into duty at the hands of an ultimately paradoxical but conniving uncle played by Matthias Schoenaerts who is Deputy Director for the State Service in Russia. The movie has a classical beauty to it and understands the sides it is playing. It is new territory for Lawrence for certain, embracing the power of manipulation and sexuality in concert with the mind. But the inherent texture is that her character never loses sight in what she is doing by either manipulating the audience, her would-be captors or her would-be manipulators on either side. The essence ultimately is that she gets to live her life above suspicion but inherently lonely. There are essences of “La Femme Nikita” and even the more recent “The Villainess” at Cannes. However the pull of Dominica’s loyalties is never quite clear despite that this is part of the construct. Where does the innocence end and the manipulation begin? The genius at times of Lawrence in this movie is that she can switch in the midst of a scene from one side to another. There were brief glimpses of it in “XMen: First Class” but as she grows older it becomes more pronounced. She can never truly disappear, but like Sharon Stone before her, she can walk the line with inherent control.
“Red Sparrow” is ultimately not about resolution but survival in many ways and the bereft elements of character that betray those in the business of espionage who want more than their country will give. Joel Edgerton plays an American CIA officer who gives just enough emotional weight to believe that Dominica might be able to escape. But ultimately the grounded angle comes in the form of Jeremy Irons, an iconoclast of these multi tiered characters from “The Mission” to “Reversal Of Fortune” to “Dead Ringers” who allows just the right amount of plot support to make it work. The key essence of a spy in all elements is that you don’t know they are a spy even if they tell you so, whether you are seducing for information or telling a mark specifically what they want to hear. The music within the movie inherently beginning with the ballet at the beginning precludes the fall which is interestingly enough a parallel to “Black Swan” which was more bathed in metaphor. “Red Sparrow” is told with a straight forward texture while the murky nature of its characters snakes underneath with a taste of dread. It doesn’t rely on large car chases to make its point but in close contact with scenes that bite and allow for the understanding of characters that perhaps have no choice but one.
By Tim Wassberg
The essence of “Annihilation” comes from the structure that we might be taken over or changed and have no concept of the texture of our transformation. Like “Ex Machina”, director Alex Garland examines the idea of the existential. What is interesting is that you don’t usually see it in a big budget movie. Having talked with Portman over the years, I can understand in many ways how come this idea appealed to her and especially with Garland coming off something like “Ex Machina”. The movie has its own pace to be sure and does take a while to move but that is somewhat the texture of its madness. It doesn’t want to explain which is why the paradox of the film structure and even the music can be misleading. Watching how the movie is told in an essence of flashback can almost be seen as lazy. Some of the dialogue too obvious. But the use of time (which in many essences could have been used to greater effect) has potential. Again “Ex Machina” was working in a more confined space where the darkness just lurks. Annihilation moves it a bit out in the open which might work against it. It is the ethereal and the notion of self that swells in the final moments and the metaphor it is showing that stays with the viewer. It is a trick of the mind in many ways.
Like “Mother”, it is a movie that is very true to its identity but a little out of sync with the current blockbuster mentality. You are watching Portman work her way through the dissolution of her character but within the canvas of “The Shimmer”. Make no mistake, it is wonderful to see her back in this kind of world. Like Jodie Foster before her, she imbues the struggle with intelligence, as if her instincts are fighting against it. Oscar Isaac, who did some great work in “Ex Machina”, knows the key here is moving like a wave past Portman which makes her performance swell. Great supporting actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson (more subdued and nuanced than her Ragnarok performance) and Gina Rodriguez offer a definite groundedness.
The fact that the female actors permeate the meat of this film as the team that we follow gives the pace a sense of introspection that would be missing if even one male was interspersed. A scene inside an abandoned house with a lost cry of a comrade is eerie in what it portends. That said, the film doesn’t include as many spine tingle moments as “Machina” did. Like “Machina” as well though, “Annihilation” will wander better the more it is watched, especially with the scenes involving The Lighthouse. It is a continual evolution of a filmmaker interested in bigger ideas with genre constructs that doesn’t need to convene to an idea of reality. It is more about where we are going versus where we have been.
By Tim Wassberg
International structure in terms of dramatic tension and the sense of the sublime and the supernatural was an inherent theme in many of the films of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this year.
Maracaibo The texture of lives lost through arrogance or perhaps even lack of compassion or foresight in this Argentinean drama. Here a doctor is unable to process the death of his son but the personality trait that divided them. His life becomes undone because the notion of masculinity and understanding has changed in modern society yet old school values or perceptions especially in old world countries remain. While inherently melodramatic, the eventual resolution shows that there was no divide per se just misunderstanding. The role of the mother/wife definitely takes on an inherent device since her desires versus her idea of how her husband can and should react take on particular resonance in one kitchen scenes. An inherent psychological portrait without too many reveals or revelations yet serviceable.
Scary Mother This film out of Georgia in the Russian arena is an interesting perception of societal norms and intents against a seemingly Cold War backdrop even though it is modern time. A mother is in some circles an underground sensation with her obscene but profound writing. But her process by which to intercede her life and then makes it a build of darkness for her creativity is an interesting one. She is willing ti sacrifice her family to find that balance. Her use of her relationship with her father in terms of both his expectation and dominance is interesting since he almost paints the portrait of why the writing speaks to inherent ego, especially when he believes it is a man writing the prose. Her family provides an interesting funnel of maturity especially the daughter who looks at life in a tecture more practical than her mother while the reflexity of smart phones and how apps can make you look older seems to shun the mother almost as if she were reflecting as Medusa to her reflection. She speaks of mythological creatures and her writing space is bathed in red suggesting an almost purgatory. There are some interesting ideas in this tome, many of which don’t come to fruition while others linger with the audience.
Grand Cur The essence of Burgundy, where a close friend still owns a old house in the middle of town, is steeped in old world traditions. This documentary follows a man of wine who came over from Montreal and because one of the most renown winemakers in the region. The documentary observes the politics that intercede but alsoexplores the climate problems in a very matter of fact way that shows how unseen hail and a freeze on the vineyards completely can change the perspective of what the land can produce. The science, again in an unassuming way, is explored to show why that land creates such wine but also how any change of it can cause problems because the land value is so high, even compared to California. Ultimately it is a tale of trying to find art purely through the dirt but the details like the fact that this transferred wine maker is not of the country and the essence of the supreme value of the soil and how it has been built or maintained throughout the millennia gives the narrative due resonance.
The Mist & The Maiden This crime thriller from Spain set on the canary islands is part of festival’s crime subsection this year. The way it intersects intellect and lust interplays some of the best constructs in the genre, both Hollywood & otherwise. There is an uncanny beauty to the women and an inherent masculinity to the men so it harks to almost a different time. The very essence of Veronica Echequi as Ruth oozes both sensuality, practicality and ultimately a sense of manipulation, compassion and opportunity. It is her presence that both grounds and elevates the film. The necessity of not explaining everything and indeed laying certain elements of blame on the system works but inherently the essence of greed and human nature plays in. One specific scene on the deck between two investigators laid bare shows a texture of play and strategy that brings to mind the more edgy moments of “Basic Instinct”. No one is spared yet the lesson of consequence looms tragically in the sense of cause and effect or more effectively silence and hiding in plain sight.
By Tim Wassberg