Tag: francis lawrence

Red Sparrow


Red Sparrow (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A common complaint is the lack of sexual and romantic chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, the former portraying a Russian ballerina who becomes an asset for the Russian intelligence after a career-ending injury and the latter a CIA contact who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government. After all, their relationship, however it is defined, revolves around the idea of what sacrifices one is willing to make to do what is right toward a moral obligation. But to criticize the film from this point of view is informative in that the person does not understand what the movie is about.

It is not supposed to be sexy, alluring, or romantic. Rather, it is supposed to be the opposite: methodical, clinical, and cold. Their world of espionage, double-crosses, and violence is meant to horrify and intrigue. On this level, “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the novel by Jason Matthews, is a success. It is able to weave together complex strands with enough precision that by the end it all makes perfect sense. The material demands that the audience is capable of paying close enough attention through several twists and turns of plot, including motivations that undergo constant states of evolution. It is not for those simply wishing to sit back and be entertained by generic action sequences. There is no explosion to be had here.

Implosions occur within our heroine. They take their toll. We observe the many horrifying events that unfold in and around Dominika, wondering at some point whether her strength, intelligence, and resolve would finally dissolve. We are meant to wonder if we have the same capacity to endure and think on our feet. I admired that Justin Haythe’s screenplay does not shy away from the struggles Dominika must tolerate so she can play the long game. She is raped, humiliated, and tortured. Early in the film, our protagonist is given a choice between death or attending what she refers to as “whore school,” led by an older woman simply called Matron (Charlotte Rampling—perfect for the role), where potential Russian assets are trained to seduce and manipulate targets using their bodies. Yes, we even watch the character being humiliated—sometimes because it is a part of her job.

Although different types of violence occur, these are never gratuitous since each one is relevant to the plot. The story is not simply an exploitative exercise of what filmmakers can get away with. Emphasis is placed on the effects of trauma and what it requires to overcome. Credit to Lawrence for playing the character with unwavering pluck and grace. (I wished, however, that her voice is dubbed at times given her inability to maintain a consistent Russian accent.) It is critical that she portrays Dominika in such a way that even though nearly everything is looking grim, there is always hope, even though it is minuscule, that she might regain control of the situation eventually. I enjoyed that Dominika’s political loyalty is a challenge to read while her personal loyalty is clear as day.

“Red Sparrow” invites viewers into a stressful world of espionage from the perspective of a woman who just wants to be able to provide for her ailing mother. It tackles a handful of subjects like fighting for personal freedom in a country that considers there is no such thing, the power of a woman’s body and intuition, what strength means for people who hold certain job titles or positions, and the like. These elements are there to be recognized, but they are never so ostentatious to the point where they distract from the project’s elegant, tension-filled entertainment.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If I could pick only one word to describe this film (and the series as a whole), it would have to be “brave.” It requires courage to tell this story in such a way that it entertains and makes one think a little deeper about its themes, characters, and ironies. It could easily have been just another movie designed to steal money from casual viewers and diehard fans. Thus, despite the emotional and grim events that unfold in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” directed by Francis Lawrence, it is ultimately an example of optimistic filmmaking. It would not be an exaggeration if one were to claim that “The Hunger Games” series is a benchmark when it comes to dystopian future young adult fiction that has been translated on screen. Others would be wise to follow.

Right at the heels of brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) attempting to kill Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) with his bare hands, the human suffering caused by the war between the rebels, led by President Coin (Julianne Moore), and the Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), is becoming all the more intense and apparent. Frustrated with constantly being used as a pawn behind the political machinations, Katniss decides to go on a one-woman mission to assassinate Snow herself. However, the Capitol is already littered with brutal yet ingenious traps designed by Gamemakers, people who designed and controlled the country’s annual tournament to the death.

Although action-packed once the gears start rolling, the film remains true to its human relationships. Painted beautifully is the complicated dynamics among Katniss, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and Peeta. But unlike other dystopian films targeted toward young adults, the story does not revolve around choosing a boy. It is impressive that it has never been about that. Instead, topics such as friendship and betrayal are explored. It touches upon forgiveness, too, and what that word entails whether it be through actions or words. There is a small but excellent exchange between Gale and Peeta when Katniss is supposedly asleep. There is humor in that conversation. And mutual respect.

Look at how the camera is so close to the performer’s faces when they reveal their characters’ thoughts, hopes, and motivations. Lawrence, Hemsworth, and Hutcherson are not only there to look cute or pretty. There are real emotions behind their eyes and so it becomes easier for us to understand and perhaps identify with their characters’ respective inner turmoil. Yes, even when there is war happening and although they are on the same side, we feel that their priorities when it comes to specific things they value vary. The screenplay Peter Craig and Danny Strong treats these characters as if they were in a dramatic picture, not just an action movie where buildings blow up and lives are taken for the sake of delivering a body count. Many of the deaths are felt and given meaning.

There are two standout action pieces. The first involves what appears to be black tar—an ocean of it—making its way through flights of stairs as our protagonists run for their lives. The second is a terrifying trip underground where white-skinned, eyeless monsters wait for them. During these two scenes, I caught my face contorting in horror and my hands felt cold.

When I watch a movie, especially horror and thrillers, it is a habit that I try to figure out possibilities of how characters could extricate themselves from a challenge. Here, I was floored; I had no idea how they could possibly make it out alive. I took comfort in knowing that it is only natural that at least some of them would live to face President Snow.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” commands a feeling of coldness about it precisely because of these reasons: it understands that war is rarely black and white, that the costs of war are significant and do not just end when victory is announced, and that war hardens people. The sadness of Katniss and her story touched me in such a way that many movies of this type—even those outside the sci-fi action genre—does not. This is due to the story and its execution being tethered with something real.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

With seven out of the eleven remaining districts revolting against the Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), it is most critical, according President Coin (Julianne Moore), leader of the rebellion, that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) embraces her role as the prime symbol of the uprising. But with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) presumably dead and the post-traumatic stress of having to kill innocent people for two consecutive years looming overhead, Katniss may neither be willing nor ready to help take down the Capitol’s totalitarian regime.

Like David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and Bill Condon’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” a question worth answering is whether the material, based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins, is necessary to be split into two. The answer is not a resounding “Yes!” but a case can be argued that this approach for this film does make room for details that otherwise might have been lost. This is an example of delayed gratification and it is severely under appreciated especially if what we come to expect is rousing action scenes.

First of these details is the emphasis on the escalation of war. This makes the first half particularly powerful because we see entire communities in raggedy clothes, bloodied, exhausted, with nothing left to lose except for their lives. We see the wreckage of infrastructures and burnt bodies underneath and amongst the rubble. The camera is not afraid to show the wounds, the trauma in people’s eyes, corpses wrapped in sheets. There is talk of a mass grave in District 8.

Another point the picture conveys successfully is Katniss being just another pawn. Although the oppressed have embraced her as the symbol of the revolution, she is also just meat to be placed in front of the camera and she must do what she is told. Despite being the most grim entry of series so far, there is room for humor in Peter Craig and Danny Strong’s screenplay, particularly the scene in which our protagonist is filming propaganda to feed to the masses. Though she knows the script word-for-word, the feelings or emotions required to make an impact are simply not there. She is meat without flavor and that won’t do.

The Achilles heel of this installment is its curious lack of character development when it comes to Snow and Coin. Already three movies in, there is no good reason for us to not understand Snow completely. While we know he enjoys having power and the amenities that come with it, there must be something more to him than looking stern and trying to keep his frustrations under wraps when things do not go his way.

We also do not learn much about Coin. We observe that she is right to the point when delivering speeches and there is room for compromise behind her leadership, but what does this uprising really mean to her? Because her more private motivations are so vague, there is an undercurrent that maybe we are not supposed to trust her. Both characters are solidly played by Sutherland and Moore but I wished they had been challenged to do more.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is accused for not having enough payoff. I agree—to an extent. For many, payoff in sci-fi dystopian future action-dramas goes hand-in-hand with deaths of characters we have grown to like or love. But for some, payoff means scenes that we take with us, those we are able to remember vividly after the picture ends. For me, there are three: a visit to a hospital, a surprise in the forest, and a destruction of a dam.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Though she has triumphed over the 74th Hunger Games, an annual ritual in which a male and a female are randomly chosen to represent their district of residence and fight against other Tributes—as well as one another—to the death, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in a post-traumatic dirge, seeing faces and hearing voices of those who did not survive. Meanwhile, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has begun to worry about a possible uprising because Katniss has inadvertently become a symbol of hope—toxic to the totalitarian regime.

The point of the yearly custom is to instill fear among the twelve districts but since Katniss’ victory, more are willing to step forward and express their disdain for the status quo. Snow wishes to eliminate Katniss as soon as possible, but a new gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) explains that if she is killed, people will surely overthrow the government. Instead, he proposes that Katniss, along with her friend and co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), be pitted against past—and deadly—winners for the 75th Hunger Games.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a strong sequel because the main goal of Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s screenplay is to expand its dystopian universe while the thrilling action sequences are allowed to fall into place. Upon closer inspection, this approach shares the same genome as superior second chapters, from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” to Bryan Singer’s “X2.” Though we are familiar with the central characters, there is a freshness in what we come to experience because there is a consistent and defined point of view. Through Katniss’ anger, guilt, and fear, we learn to appreciate not only who she is as a protagonist but also the type of world she lives in. The filmmakers make an active decision not to simply rely on the good-guy-versus-bad-guy template and assume that just because someone “good” is up against a “big bad” does not mean he or she is worthy of our time. They work for it. Those in charge of the material are willing to go into specifics and so the final product is transportive.

Lawrence has so much range and she is the reason why Katniss is worth knowing—lightyears more interesting than the likes of Bella Swan or Melanie Stryder. For instance, part of the essence of the picture is the characters’ relationship with the media. Katniss and Peeta must pretend to be a couple when the districts and the all-seeing Capitol are watching. Katniss is instructed to smile, be happy, and act in love. Lawrence makes interesting choices on how to present Katniss during interviews. While we see the character following instructions she has been given, there are split-second moments—subtle body movements—when Lawrence allows Katniss to appear uncomfortable and communicate how much she hates participating in the charade. In other words, the actor is completely pulling the strings while her character attempts to put on a show. There is a difference and it is a challenge to accomplish with grace.

It is most interesting that the picture spends well over an hour to expand the circumstances and build what is at stake. When we get to the tournament—which, admittedly, I looked most forward to—it is almost less engaging compared to the machinations and politics in Panem. I found this appropriate. Because the first half gives us a chance to appreciate the film’s universe, the game itself has gone stale, almost shallow. What I wanted to see more is the growing rebellion. President Snow expresses great concern—building up to silent panic—about the government being overthrown but we are not yet provided distinct factions to allow the threat to be personified. The next chapter should prove most fruitful.

I do not mean to suggest that the challenges that the Tributes face in the strange tropical island are not exciting. On the contrary, it offers some moments of real suspense. For instance, it features the most menacing white cloud of terror since Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.” I also enjoyed being suspicious of Katniss and Peeta’s competitors. I never trusted any of them (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, Alan Ritchson, Jena Malone)—even if a few have proven several times that they are allies. I caught myself looking for the smallest hints—to anticipate the acts of betrayal. A good movie dares to keep you on your toes. I knew then that I was engaged.

Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, “Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is great entertainment because it cares about details not only when it comes to what is seen on screen but also what is felt by the characters and how we feel toward them. Notice the significant contrast between Katniss’ drab grayish-blue world—one that she covets nonetheless because of her family and community—and the pavonine, lush celebrations in the Capitol—a world that does not earn an iota of her respect due to what it represents.

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jacob (Robert Pattinson) has a promising future despite the claws of The Great Depression running deep. But on the day of his final exam, critical to his certification as a veterinarian in Cornell University, his parents perish in a car accident. After finding out that his family’s house is to be taken by the bank, Jacob, an only child, hits the road and ends up aboard a train which houses Benzini Brothers performers. Camel (Jim Norton) decides to take Jacob under his wing and introduces him to the boss, August (Christoph Waltz), in hopes of getting him a job. August reluctantly hires Jacob as the circus vet but it is not long until the seventeen-year-old orphan notices August’s wife, blonde-haired Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction of the circus.

Based on a novel by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is most engaging when Jacob and August play tug o’ war over Marlena. Even though they are husband and wife, August treats Marlena as his plaything, as something that he can brag about indirectly, shamelessly as they sit next to each other in front of company.

August is a smart but cruel man, especially to animals because he sees them as less than, simply a way of making money. When consumed with rage, he does not think twice about picking up a sharp object and stabbing the animals with it until the anger has been drained out of him and blood has been drained out of the animals. His cruelty to them causes a rift between he and his wife, who genuinely loves animals and appreciates their innate beauty and intelligence.

This is where Jacob comes in. Marlena sees a kindness in him and thinks it is refreshing. Over time, though reluctantly at first, their feelings for each other reach a peak and they realize that they need to get out of the circus before one or both of them ends up dead.

The dark romance, or ownership, between husband and wife and the dreamy romance between wife and younger man is handled with clarity and respect without sacrificing necessary implications for complexity. It is important that we do not see Jacob as someone who is out to destroy someone’s marriage. This is why it is necessary that the exposition be given ample time to be presented and unfold elegantly. We learn to see him as a man–not necessarily a physically strong man but a man with strong convictions–who might hold the key to Marlene’s cage. Pattinson holds his own against Waltz and Witherspoon.

The weakness of the film is not spending more time on Rosie the elephant. Aside from the important scene near the end, what exactly is the elephant’s relationship toward Marlena and Jacob? There is something about the animal, capable of understanding language, that is purposefully magical, almost human-like in its ability to understand emotions and intentions. More scenes are required to strengthen the connection between the elephant and the lovers.

“Water for Elephants,” based on the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, is beautifully made. I liked the techniques it employs during the circus performances like muffling the sounds just a little bit to emphasize the images and how they are accomplished without CGI. It does not forget that magic is found in what is real.