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Posts Tagged ‘Jeremy Irons’

Jennifer Lawrence was as prominent as ever at the Oscars the other night, as befits a star of her calibre and popularity (I can’t remember when they started calling her ‘America’s Sweetheart’, and even if this was originally meant semi-ironically, that doesn’t seem to be the case any more). She wasn’t actually up for a gong this year, and one is tempted to suggest this is mainly because David O Russell didn’t have a film out this year (her last three Academy nods have all come from appearances in Russell movies).

Instead, she was plugging her new movie Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation, I find myself obliged to say), which mainly appeared to involve showing up on a cold London rooftop in a slinky and rather revealing black dress while her male co-stars were decked out in nice warm coats and scarves. Needless to say, t’internet had things to say about this double standard, and most of it was not complimentary. Surprisingly enough, reaction to Red Sparrow itself has been rather more mixed – personally, while I find Jennifer Lawrence’s decision to appear in that dress to be fairly unremarkable, I find her decision to appear in Red Sparrow to be borderline baffling.

The film is mostly set in present-day Russia and eastern Europe, not that this is immediately apparent. Lawrence plays Dominika, a nice young ballerina whose career comes to an end after a gruesome work-related injury nearly results in one of her legs coming off. Things look bleak for her and her poorly mum, until her sinister uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the security services, appears with an offer: if she exploits her natural charms to get close to a person of interest, he will see she and her mum are looked after.

Well, naturally things do not go quite according to plan (or do they…?) and Dominika is presented with a choice of options: be shot in the head and dumped in the river as a witness to a secret operation, or go to a special training school and become a ‘sparrow’, a highly-trained specialist spy-stroke-prostitute (and you can probably guess what gets stroked the most). After due consideration of the alternatives, Dominika agrees to enrol in what even she describes as ‘whore school’.

Intercut with all this is the marginally more conventional tale of rugged CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) – do not let the fact his name means ‘ours’ in Russian, as any fule who have seen From Russia With Love kno, lead you to expect a twist – who is running a top-level mole inside Russian security. He knows who the mole is. The Russians know he knows who the mole is. He knows the Russians know he knows who the mole is. Rather than let this go on indefinitely, sinister uncle Ivan decides to send in Dominika to make contact (hem-hem) with Nash and persuade him to reveal who the traitor is. But will she stay loyal to the motherland? Could she in fact be playing a game of her own?

I suppose the first thing one has to say about Red Sparrow is to question the extent to which it is in good taste to make blockbuster entertainment about Russian espionage activities at the moment. Whether you think that Russian involvement in western politics and society is a serious problem (as I write this the UK news is full of what appears to be an attempted assassination on a former Russian national which took place on British soil, to say nothing of the protracted shenanigans in which President Man-Baby finds himself embroiled), or that the Russian government is an essentially harmless paper tiger, this kind of depiction is unlikely to move the world closer to unity and peace. ‘Your body belongs to the state!’ snaps the commandant of sparrow school, played with inimitable menace by Charlotte Rampling, who later goes on to announce ‘It is time for Russia to take its place at the head of other nations’. Russia is shown, in short, as being an almost cartoonishly awful and sinister place.

However, and somewhat startlingly, this doesn’t even begin to deal with all the most problematic elements of Red Sparrow. All right, films are in production for a long time – years, in the case of one like this – and I’m sure no-one involved had any more inkling that the Post-Weinstein Moment was on its way than the rest of us. But it remains the case that this film feels almost uncannily, supernaturally misjudged in its sexual politics, at the moment. We’re no more than twenty-five minutes in before the first time Jennifer Lawrence is forced to undress, and this is followed by a sequence which plays almost like a reconstruction of certain of the allegations that have been doing the rounds, as a rich and powerful man engages in a violent sexual assault on a vulnerable young woman in a hotel bedroom.

This isn’t the only recent film to add a little dash of this sort of thing – I have occasionally complained about Hollywood’s blase attitude to misogynistic violence in mainstream thrillers in the past – but what makes Red Sparrow different is that, ever since the first trailer, its advertising and marketing has focused solely on the fact that this is a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle and she is a very comely young woman. The whole subtext of the trailers could really be summed up as ‘Jennifer Lawrence as a sexy spy – cor! I mean – COORRRR!!!’ And the film is really no different – it really does feel like the sine qua non of the film is to show Lawrence in various alluring states of undress, and engaging in various provocative activities. It’s overwhelmingly prurient and actually rather repugnant: I emerged from the theatre feeling like I wanted to be hosed down with sheep dip, the film is that icky.

So, as I say, you really have to wonder what possessed as sharp a customer as Lawrence to make a film where she is depicted almost entirely as a sexually-objectified victim, where her physicality seems to have been at least as important as her acting ability. With regard to rooftopdressgate, Lawrence’s response was that she liked the dress, thought she looked good in it, and it’s nobody else’s damn business what she chooses to wear. Which I suppose is good strong feminist stuff, from a certain angle at least. And I expect one could make a similar defence of her appearance in the movie – it’s her career, after all, and if she wants to receive a massive cheque for doing gratuitous nude scenes in tacky sex-thrillers then that’s nobody’s business but hers. She owes no responsibility to anyone else.

Well, therein hangs the question, of course: Lawrence is free to do whatever she wants, and is unlikely to be casually exploited, no matter what happens. Other young women who are not influential celebrities with an estimated net worth of £84 million may find themselves in a different situation, and the issue is the extent to which Lawrence is personally responsible for the state of the world.  It’s a big one, of course, and probably too big to be properly discussed here, but I will just say this: Lawrence’s talent and power means she is never going to be short of films to appear in, so I don’t see why she felt it necessary to appear in this particular one, given it is so tawdry and unpleasant.

The thing is that once you get past the objectionable sexual politics of Red Sparrow, all you are actually left with is a turgid and overlong spy thriller. There are plenty of twisty-turny bits along the way, but it all feels curiously inert and is never especially engaging. For most of the film, the agendas and goals of the different characters remain enigmatic and shrouded in mystery: the problem is that this doesn’t engage or intrigue the viewer very much, you just don’t care, for some reason. This is despite a couple of pretty decent performances from Jeremy Irons (who recently, and with no discernible sense of irony, announced in a TV interview that actors shouldn’t pocket a big cheque if it means appearing in rubbish) and Schoenaerts.

Of course, even when it’s not being leery and exploitative, the film still often finds time to be graphically, sadistically violent – and there are even bits where it manages to be leery and sadistic at the same time: oh, look, here’s Lawrence having her clothes cut off preparatory to torture! Here she is actually being tortured! Here’s someone else being flayed alive!

Normally I would say all the violence was over-the-top, but in Red Sparrow‘s case it suits the tone of the rest of the movie all too well; that’s really the problem. And, as I’ve said (possibly at too great a length: what can I say, I’m a Guardian reader), this film does have more serious issues going on. It is competently made, up to a point – this is almost a problem in itself, as it gives the film a veneer of respectability it really doesn’t deserve – but beneath that surface is something comprehensively misogynistic and deeply objectionable.

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Ben Wheatley is a director who has been making a name for himself for the last few years, more often than not working on low-budget genre movies of various kinds. In hindsight it looks like a dead cert that the mainstream was always going to come calling on him – you could argue this happened when he was recruited to direct two high-profile episodes of the BBC’s premier Saturday night sci-fi-comedy show – and with a talent as singular as this, the question is always whether they’ll be able to retain what makes them so special under the unforgiving eye of major studio oversight.

Well, I think we have something of an answer, in the shape of Wheatley’s adaptation of the noted J.G. Ballard novel High-Rise, which has received the widest release of any of his films to date. The book was published over forty years ago and has arguably proved quite influential ever since, but all previous attempts to be bring it directly to the screen have foundered.

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From what we see and hear on-screen, the film retains the very-near-future setting of the novel – which in this case means some point in a 1976 that never actually happened. Tom Hiddlestone plays Laing, a doctor who as the story starts is just moving into an exclusive new housing development, a huge tower block that seems to exist at a remove from the rest of civilisation. He soon befriends several of the other residents (played by Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Luke Evans) and even makes the acquaintance of the architect of the building (Jeremy Irons), who lives in seclusion at the very top of the tower.

Initially all is well in the high-rise, with all the inhabitants enjoying the various amenities at their disposal. Soon, however, tensions start to build over seemingly innocuous things – access to the swimming pool, demands upon the building’s power grid – and these snowball into disputes that soon spin out of control. Open hostilities soon break out between the different social groups, as the amenities fail and the building sinks into squalour and misery. Where will it all end? One thing is certain: despite the architect’s great hopes, life in these towers is far from paradise…

Well, the high-rise itself may not be quite as rectilinear as Ballard himself envisaged (honestly, if you had a drink every time Ballard uses the word in the novel you’d probably pass out within the first few chapters), but in every other way this seems to be to be a highly impressive and very faithful adaptation. The structure of the book survives intact, which I didn’t expect, and if the characters remain a little more articulate throughout their degeneration, that’s only to be expected. The central conceit of the novel – that within the civilised exterior of the tower block, horror reigns, something which the outside world remains totally oblivious of – is also preserved, although this is remains something you have to kind of go with.

Anyone unfamiliar with the novel might be expecting a sort of narrative-driven action-horror somewhat in the vein of The Raid, as Laing and his companions battle to survive against the other tribes of the high-rise, but this is really not that kind of a film. The focus is much more on the way that all the inhabitants are complicit in the savage anarchy that consumes the building, willing participants, and the way that it is an oddly more honest expression of the normal social forces at work in modern society. One of the brilliancies of the book is the way that it isn’t really a clumsy metaphor for the class system – everyone is very middle-class, a doctor or an architect or something in the media.

The emphasis on mood and small details of character appears to be a perfect fit for Wheatley’s own sensibility: few directors can bring encroaching madness to the screen with same degree of carefree nonchalance, and naturally he gets very nearly free reign in that area here. The film’s excursions into surreal black comedy also suit him perfectly – at one point a group of senior residents, dressed in blood-stained rags, have a committee meeting where they discuss driving out the lower inhabitants, converting the lower floors into a golf course, slaughtering the building’s animals for food, and lobotomising troublemakers, and it’s impossible to see where Ballard’s vision ends and Wheatley’s begins.

Wheatley brings it all to the screen with his customary skill and control of sound and image. (One unexpected but rather brilliant touch is the use of ABBA’s S.O.S as a musical motif throughout the film, although one wonders if Benny and Bjorn were quite aware of the images their masterpiece would be playing on top of when they allowed its use.) Seeing the story brought to the screen in quite this way also brought home to me just how influential it has arguably been – you can surely see elements of High-Rise in Cronenberg’s Shivers, and also in the nightmarish city-block dystopia of the Judge Dredd strip.

One curious amendation to the novel comes at the very end of the film, when part of a speech by Margaret Thatcher is heard, praising free-market capitalism. Prior to this point the film hasn’t been explicitly political at all, although you can certainly see how Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ beliefs could be relevant to the goings-on in the high rise. That said, it feels as if it’s there just to drive a point home, but the actual point remains a little obscure, and one wouldn’t usually expect something quite so on-the-nose from Wheatley or his regular co-writer Amy Jump.

Whether this qualifies as a serious wobble or not is probably down to your personal taste and political views, but the rest of the film is very impressive – perhaps a bit too cerebral and artful to totally engage the emotions, but made with enormous skill and intelligence. Followers of both Ballard and Wheatley should be very satisfied with the end product.

 

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(No, not the one about the teenage lesbian murderers; that’s Heavenly Creatures. Or the farce about John Cleese running a zoo; that’s Fierce Creatures. Or the literary parody novel by Clive James; that’d be Brilliant Creatures. Okay?)

So, even I end up going to the cinema unexpectedly sometimes and seeing films I had no real plan to. There I was, sitting in the garret, contemplating finally writing that review of Power of the Daleks or possibly putting together a Blood Angels 8th Company Honour Guard squad, when the good and close friend who I previously introduced to the pleasures of Samsara, and who later retaliated by forcing me to watch Twilight – Breaking Dawn Part 2, got in touch and suggested we do another movie. I couldn’t face the prospect of Les Miserables again, she didn’t fancy A Good Day to Die Hard, and the only showing of Warm Bodies at the sweetshop had already started. So, rather against my better judgement, we ended up going to see Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures.

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Why was I so dubious about this movie? Well, the trailer looked like a teen-oriented piece of bland fantasy built around a non-threatening romance, attempting to pass itself off as rather darker and edgier than it really was, with a lot of heftless CGI, pretty young things, and imported Serious Actors to give the thing some gravitas. In other words: something very much in the same vein as the Twilight movies. I think you see the reason for my concern.

Anyway, as the thing opens we are introduced to studly small-town boy Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich, obviously in his 20s) who has been troubled by dreams of a mysterious girl. I’m sure it will come as no surprise if I tell you that the start of Ethan’s new school year is marked by the arrival of a new classmate, who turns out to be (literally) the girl of his dreams: Lena (Alice Englert, who doesn’t look remotely like a 15-year-old). The frothing fundamentalist Christian mean girls at the school (no, seriously) are quick to spread all manner of rumours about Lena and her wealthy, reclusive uncle (Jeremy Irons), mainly that they are Devil worshippers and practitioners of black magic. And they are! Well, sort of.

Needless to say Ethan and Lena fall passionately in leurrrvvve, which would be great were it not for her looming sixteenth birthday, on which day she will either continue to be the sweet and thoughtful girl she currently is, or fall to the powers of darkness and become a demon in human form. Cripes!

I have to say, I enjoyed Beautiful Creatures more than I expected to (which is to say that I found it mildly enjoyable on some levels), which really counts as a striking achievement on the film’s part considering it is essentially every bit the Twilight knock-off I suspected it would be. The mysterious stranger at school, the protagonist with only a lone parent, the extended family with supernatural powers, the rapturous submission to an irresistible passion: they are all here, given only the most cursory swirl around by the screenwriter’s pen. It doesn’t even have the washed-out authenticity of the original Twilight – everything here is blandly conventional.

So why didn’t I want to run screaming from the cinema? Well, it certainly wasn’t because of the film’s sympathetic and original depiction of Christians, because most of the characters of that faith in this film are ludicrous caricatures – I would describe Beautiful Creatures as being militantly pagan, despite the fact that no real-world religions appear to have been included. Nor is it because this is a pacy and exciting film that never lets up – I’d say it is at least twenty minutes overlong.

However, it scores heavily over Twilight in being genuinely funny in places: there were two jokes good enough to make me laugh out loud in the first five minutes alone, and there continued to be good lines peppered across it throughout. This went a long way towards making me cut the film some slack. The performances aren’t entirely robotic and inert, either. My companion was moved to optimism due to the presence in the cast of both Jeremy Irons (she’s clearly never seen Eragon) and Emma Thompson (ditto Junior). However, they are actually both pretty good, in an unrestrained sort of way, and the big two-handed scene where they get to overact at each other is probably the highlight of the film.

The rest of the cast is okay. This is the kind of film where the ability to enunciate in such a way as to invest dialogue with Capital Letters is an important skill, as the plot revolves around big significant abstract nouns and concepts such as Light and Dark, the Claiming, the Curse, Casting, and so on, and everyone makes a pretty good fist of it.

However, this still indicates one of the problems with the film. Many years ago I interviewed a fairly successful horror and SF novelist and screenwriter who spoke of his dislike for the genre of pure fantasy, where the creator basically gets to write all his own rules – he described it as ‘cheating at cards to win paper money’. It’s very difficult to feel impressed at the bravery or ingenuity,  or the sacrifices made by characters to resolve a difficult situation, when that situation is as completely contrived by the author is the one here is. It isn’t even as if the story works particularly well in terms of subtext – all right, so there’s the outsider as beautiful freak (again), and some stuff about choosing your own destiny, but none of it is especially coherent.

And there’s a major issue with the structure: this movie is mainly pitching to teenage girls as its target audience, and so the logical thing would be to have Lena as the viewpoint character. This is not possible for various structural reasons, and also because it would raise the dread spectre of Bella Swan rather too obviously, and so the first part of the story is told from the viewpoint of the male lead instead. However, the nature of the story demands an inelegant shift to Lena about three-quarters of the way through, at which point one is thrown suddenly off-balance – it’s like a novel changing narrators unexpectedly and with no reason given.

But I have a horrible feeling I will see much worse films than Beautiful Creatures this year. It is too long, and the CGI is as uninvolving as I expected, and the plot does depend on good actors spouting grave nonsense to explain the contrived parameters of the story. But the young cast are not offensive to eye or ear and it does have some decent jokes in it. It could be a lot harder to sit through than it is. I have no desire to watch a sequel though.

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