Red Sparrow (2018)

Red Sparrow

The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.  Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a bleak and uncertain future after she suffers an injury to her leg that ends her performing career. Her uncle Vanya(!) (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deputy director of the SVR and has photos which incriminate her dance partner and rival at the Bolshoi and she inflicts terrible injuries on the pair of them, as he predicted.  He then makes her a deal and she becomes a witness to a state-sponsored killing and either has to die or do what he says.  She needs her sick mother (Joely Richardson) to be cared for. She is sent to Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service set up by Khrushchev, that trains exceptional young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons under the watchful eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow after completing the sadistic training process which turns her into a prostitute for the State, with killer abilities. As she comes to terms with her new job, she encounters CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and he tries to convince her that he is the only person she can trust as her mission threatens to undo the security of the US and Russian alike and she agrees to become an agent for the US – or does she? … As the world moves back to Cold War positions, this throwback to that era aims to be a tough sexy thriller but Jason Matthews’ novel adapted by Justin Haythe abounds with clichés which no amount of nudity (gratuitous or otherwise) convince us that this belongs with the great espionage films we all know and love. Long and violent, there are some amusing exchanges, particularly with Putin lookalike Schoenaerts such as when his niece hisses  You sent me to whore school! I thought all Russian women went, but there you go. There are twists upon twists and ultimately they play well, with Lawrence very good in a role which is truly abject and horrible in parts. This is a fast-moving travelogue with a conclusion that is planted well in advance and you don’t need to be a master in spycraft to figure it out. It’s not Graham Greene, but what are you going to do? Lawrence is reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for this walk on the wild side and it looks splendid:  even the torture is shot prettily.

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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Poor Tom Cruise. He is one hell of an actor and in what is still probably his greatest performance in Born of the Fourth of July he found himself in a wheelchair-off against Daniel Day-Lewis. (Don’t try to tell me DDL has never given a crap performance – I’ve seen Nine, for Pete’s sake.) Mind you, he came back a decade later with a stunner of abject nastiness in Magnolia. So that’s the Oscar noms taken care of for now. But he is one hell of an auteur – as star and producer he has hooked up with some of the smartest people around, which means he’s pretty smart too. And he knows how to indulge what used to be called the cinema of attractions in any analysis of the early days of the business:  thrill a minute, sensation-building, audience-pleasing. He is a properly savvy star with charisma to burn and I love pretty much everything he does. In the fourth installment of the TV reboot, he makes the best episode since the first one (IMHO) and starts by breaking out of a prison in Moscow, gets blamed for blowing up the Kremlin when a competitor rides the coat-tails of his op and then the Secretary of the IMF (and I don’t mean Christine Lagarde) gets offed in front of him … so he’s disavowed.  It all gets nuclear and since Cruise is famous for doing most of his own stunts those of us who have vertigo have to avert our eyes when he tackles the Burj Khalifa. Gosh it’s terrific.  The way the team is pulled together (Paula Patton, great, Simon Pegg, a bit WTF?, Jeremy Renner, fairly suspect) is efficient, the trickery is marvellous and Brad Bird directs in super kinetic style as you’d expect from a man made in animation.The screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec is a marvel of economy and they provide really good performing opportunities for both of the main women (Lea Seydoux is one hell of a villain). I love this series and what is even better for us is that episode 5 is probably the best of the lot with a truly promising ending to an endlessly Bond-like scenario … If you’re interested in reading about Cruise as action hero I’ve written a series of articles about his collaborations with screenwriting legend Robert Towne for Creative Screenwriting magazine. They can be found starting here:  http://creativescreenwriting.com/mission-impossible-surprising-depths.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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For a book to not merely survive but to come intact and unbesmirched out of a screen adaptation once is great good fortune;  to do so twice is little short of miraculous. Yet this is what has happened with John Le Carre’s great, resonant spy novel which exposed the dull, continuous procedural processes underlying the killing machine of British intelligence. The late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did a fine job of whittling back the story, even if some of the agents didn’t get the kind of coverage in terms of the narrative that the 1979 BBC series was able to luxuriate in telling. Crucially, they understand that much of this is about storytelling itself and the nature of perspective. Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director, had form in adaptations. Let the Right One In (2008) seemed like a superb, inventive vampire story beneath the flat shooting style – until one reads the novel, which is essentially a screenplay template that was altered just two jots (the child abuse theme; and a scene at the swimming pool was altered  in the timeline) in its adaptation. (So much for auteurism!) However here he comes into his own. Each shot choice, every aesthetic decision, every scene, is immersive.  It is a great woozy 70s experience, with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography perfectly capturing the very brown-ness of the era in London, and Maria Djurkovic’s production design stunningly accurate. The performances are pitch perfect. Gary Oldman had a tough call to make as Smiley but if you’re not fetishistic about Alec Guinness he is a wonderful casting choice (and got an Academy Award nomination); and of the vast and interesting ensemble Benedict Cumberbatch is a fabulous, swaggering Peter Guillam, inhabiting him like a predatory male model. He looks so very different to all those other bland grey men. The scene when he ditches his gay lover is shot behind a rain-spattered window, the sound dulled down, and it is unbearably moving. Smiley’s Lady Anne is never seen fully, just in profile, as she cheats on her beleaguered husband over and over again. The green painted walls, the telephones, the music. It’s all ready and waiting. For paper addicts, this is a feast for the eyes –  notes, files, archives … Glorious!! This is simply brilliant cinema, to be watched over and over. Superb.