Film review: ‘RED SPARROW’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Red Sparrow, which comes from Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, initially looks like a La Femme Nikita knock-off with a troubled young woman recruited by the government to train as a secret operative. Refreshingly, this modern cold war drama leans more toward the slow-burn intrigue of Jean le Carre than it does an action exploitation piece.

Jennifer Lawrence leads an impressive cast as Dominika Egorova a star of the Bolshoi Ballet whose life is shattered when an injury ends her career. Desperate to care for get ailing mother she accepts an offer from creepy uncle and government spook Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) to join a secret program called ‘the Sparrows’. With faint echoes of the assassin program in Zoolander, attractive young men and women are trained in various espionage skills, most notably the ability to endure weird and brutal humiliation and sell themselves as seducers.

This is where the film departs will depart from many audience-members’ expectations as the recruits are not trained as the sort of ninja-like assassins we saw in Nikita or a more comical film like The Kingsman. Instead, the skills they acquire are subtle and psychological and involve a more intimate relationship with their human targets. When Dominika is despatched to Budapest to try and uncover a Russian Secret Service mole she becomes entangled with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who has been working with that mole and soon she faces the potentially deadly choice of which side she really wants to be on.

As in most grim espionage thrillers, the plot of Red Sparrow inevitably becomes very convoluted as Dominika deals with double agents, multiple deceptions and assorted red herrings but thankfully it never becomes unbearably messy or incoherent like some spy thrillers.

The film is built around Jennifer Lawrence’s performance and she impresses once again as the tough, but compassionate Dominika. She isn’t a Charlize Theron Atomic Blonde killing machine, instead she’s meant to be a more nuanced and vulnerable character and Lawrence succeeds in making her both fiercely determined and calculating but also sympathetic.

With striking cinematography from Jo Willems who lensed the Hunger Games films and fine use of locations – particularly the architectural wonders of Budapest – this is a visually stunning film.

Squeamish viewer should be warned there are violent, gory and even shocking sequences here as double agents are exposed and incur the wrath of the Sparrow’s cruellest assassin Simyonov (Sergev Onopko). Despite this, those expecting a Bond-like thrill ride may be disappointed by the leisurely pace at which the story unspools.

Those who enjoy their espionage movies more nuanced, restrained and artfully constructed will be seduced by Red Sparrow.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Cold war spy thriller/ action/ drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Francis Lawrence.

Release date: 2nd March 2018.

Running time: 141 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: PASSENGERS, from ‘Built For Speed’

We can almost hear the boardroom meeting: “that Titanic made a bundle and so did that Gravity let’s mash them together, throw in a couple of Hollywood’s hottest stars and it’s new Ferraris all round”. The result is Passengers a sci-fi/ adventure/ romance that should have been a moving and thrilling space adventure but winds up being surprisingly tepid.

Chris Pratt stars as Jim Preston a mechanic who, at a time in the future, has, along with 5,000 other intrepid souls, volunteered to be placed in suspended animation and transported across the galaxies in the spaceship Avalon so he can be among the first people to populate a new planet named Homestead 2. When a mishap causes his sleep pod to malfunction and wake him from suspended animation 30 years into the 120 year journey, Jim finds himself floating through space alone. At first the intergalactic cruise ship’s numerous high tech attractions stave off the misery of Jim’s solitude but he soon begins to crave human contact. When he is joined by another passenger Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) and starts to form a romantic relationship with her, Jim’s lonely fate seems to have been averted but he also confronted with a painful moral dilemma.

With the film predominantly focused on the two main characters, the pairing of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt needed to produce phenomenal screen chemistry. Unfortunately, their romance isn’t especially moving or even believable. Most of the time they’re just two ridiculously good looking people larking about in space. Added to that, the sci-fi drama in which their lives are threatened is mostly predictable and pinches ideas from superior films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Still, it’s hard not enjoy any Jennifer Lawrence performance. Even if the script doesn’t realise her character’s potential, Lawrence still imbues Aurora with strength and emotional depth. Pratt on the other hand seems more suited to quirky action hero roles like the ones he played in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World and he doesn’t convince as a man undergoing an existential crises or as a romantic lead. The only other actor with substantial screen time is Michael Sheen who is appropriately creepy as the suspiciously polite android bar tender Arthur.

Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum fashions a slick, shiny and somewhat soulless world aboard the Avalon, a ship whose interior resembles a futuristic games parlour mixed with a shopping mall after closing time. He conjures a few visually impressive sci-fi action set pieces but this film lacks the indelible art direction of sci-fi classics like Alien.

The potential was here for a sci-fi epic and a touching human story but Passengers winds up as a mediocre space romance.

Nick’s rating: **1/2.

Genre: Sci Fi/ Romance.

Classification: M.

Director(s):  Morten Tyldum.

Release date: 1st January 2017.

Running time: 116 mins.

Screening at: General release.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


‘Built For Speed’ playlist. ‘Christmas special’. December 25th 2015

Built for Speed – ‘CHRISTMAS DAY’ 25th December 2015

    1. THE CRYSTALS – Santa Claus is coming to town.
    2. DARLENE LOVE – Christmas Baby Please Come Home.
    3. SLADE – Merry Christmas.
    4. ROY WOOD – I wish it could be Christmas every day.
    5. MANIC STREET PREACHERS – Last Christmas.
    6. MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS – Love is like a heatwave.
    7. BERNARD HERMAN – Cape Fear.
    8. IAN SIMPSON AND JOHN KANE – Duelling banjos.
    9. AIR – Playground love.
    10. BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD – Expecting to fly.
    11. ARAM KATCHATURIAN – Gayne ballet suite.
    12. NEIL YOUNG – Philadelphia.
    13. EDDIE VEDDER- No ceiling.
    14. JOHN BARRY – Walkabout.
    15. EDDIE VEDDER – Guaranteed.
    16. THE SMITHS – Ask.
    17. THE SMITHS – Big mouth strikes again.
    18. THE SMITHS – How soon is now.
    19. THE SMITHS – Heaven knows I’m miserable now.
    20. THE SMITHS – This Charming man.REM – I believe.
    21. REM – Driver 8.
    22. REM – Near wild heaven.
    23. REM – Imitation of life.


  • PREVIEW – Boxing Day Films


Film review: JOY from ‘Built For Speed’

JOYTime once again to enter the wonderfully off-kilter but seeringly insightful alternate reality of David O Russell’s films. His two previous offerings Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were an intoxicating mix of comedy, drama and romance that provided some of the best cinema entertainment of recent years. With those films Russell established an ensemble of actors including Robert de Niro, Bradley Cooper and Russell’s muse Jennifer Lawrence all of whom have returned for the funny and moving biopic of self-made business woman and Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano.

Joy has all the Russell trademarks: sparkling, witty, honest dialogue; family dysfunction and a story of squashed dreams in which underdogs desperately try to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and in the process discover something profound about them self.

Jennifer Lawrence plays the eponymous Joy, a struggling working mother struggling not only with multiple mortgages and the problems of being a single parent but also bickering between her Mother (Virginia Madsen) who hibernates in a room in Joy’s house watching soap operas, her Father (Robert De Niro) who takes up residence in the basement and a layabout ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who also lives in the basement. As a child Joy was remarkably inventive and industrious but her ambitions were crushed by domestic responsibilities. A chance for financial salvation and an outlet for her repressed creativity comes when Joy designs the Miracle Mop which she is convinced will prove a godsend to mothers. A burgeoning TV home shopping network seems to provide the perfect vehicle for Joy to sell her creation. Her desperate attempt to gain recognition for her invention is plagued, however, by dodgy manufacturers, sexist financiers and her crazed, self-centred family members.

David O. Russell’s films thrive on controlled chaos and that’s never been more apparent than in the domestic calamity that fills Joy’s house. The banter between Joy and her oddball family is a riot while also providing potent insights into the bitterness that plagues families.

Like many Russell films, Joy has a nostalgic flavour and a clear debt to Martin Scorsese with its familiar shot compositions, affection for the seventies aesthetics and its use of music. Some of the classic rock tracks don’t fit the contours of the scenes as sublimely as the songs in Marty’s films suggesting that Russell has incorporated them simply because he likes them but who’s going to argue when the tracks are as magnificent as The Rolling Stones’ Stray Cat Blues or Buffalo Springfield’s Expecting to Fly.

As much as an individual biopic, Joy is a parable of American industry with its depiction of a world where ingenuity is disappearing that little guy or woman is often squashed. This is far from a dark film, though, as the sentimental Russell gives Joy a positive undercurrent and even a fairy-tale feel when he includes soothing voice-overs from Joy’s Grandma Mimi (Dianne Ladd).

David o Russell is an actor’s director and his recent batch of films have given Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper their career best roles and Robert de Niro his best roles in decades. It’s a little unusual to see Jennifer Lawrence shifting from teen warrior in The Hunger Games to working class mother in Joy but being such a fine actor she makes that jump seem effortless. Lawrence is such a likeable screen presence that when she achieves any sort of victory in Joy it’s a genuinely emotional experience for the audience. Cooper brings the aura of charismatic sleaze he has cultivated in previous roles to full effect here as the evangelical tele-sales boss Neil Walker. De Niro is genuinely amusing as Joy’s slightly unhinged Father while Isabella Rossellini ads an exotic touch as his unlikely girlfriend.

Joy is a little uneven in tone and doesn’t quite cohere as well as Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle but still contains the pleasures that made those films so wonderful and that have made David O Russell’s recent films essential viewing experiences.

Nick’s rating: ****.

Genre: Drama/ biopic.

Classification: M.

Director(s): David O. Russell.

Release date: 26th December 2015.

Running time: 124 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1, from Built For Speed

The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Part 1 suffers the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows curse where, in a final cash grab, the last instalment of a film franchise is split in two making the first half a mostly dull prelude to the actual finale. That’s not to say Mocking Jay Part 1 doesn’t have its attractions.  Director Francis Lawrence still manages to draw from Suzanne Collins’ novel an unsettling picture of a totalitarian regime that manipulates its oppressed subjects with Orwellian language and propaganda all of which have disturbing echoes in contemporary politics and media.  These potent political insights are, however, thinly scattered throughout a bland sci fi adventure story that, especially in its first half, is disappointingly listless.

Mocking Jay Part 1 sees heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hiding out with the rebel alliance in their bunker beneath District 13 after she literally brought the house down with a well-placed arrow in the last Hunger Games film.  Katniss’ defiance of the ruling order in the dystopian world of Panem has inspired an uprising in the districts which rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore) and former game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (the sadly departed Phillip Seymour Hoffman) are trying to turn into a mass rebellion.  Ill-equipped militarily, the rebels hope to sway the masses with propaganda featuring Katniss as their warrior poster girl or Mocking Jay.  Desperate to quash the rebellion, Panem’s sinister ruler President Snow (Donald Sutherland) instigates a brutal bombing assault on the rebels along with his own propaganda campaign in which Katniss’ captured lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is forced to appear in nationwide broadcasts beseeching the rebels to surrender. Aided by friends Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and the amusingly sozzled Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) Katniss tries to negotiate her unsettling new role as a propaganda weapon and her lingering feelings for Peeta.

The first half if this film unspools at a snooze worthy pace with very little happening apart from dull dialogue and most of the characters looking alternately confused and distressed.  Jennifer Lawrence does her best with the material at hand, though and is still magnetic screen presence investing the feisty yet vulnerable Katniss with earnestness and empathy. The two young male leads Hemsworth and Hutcherson are as bland as they were in the previous Hunger Games films although in one impressively shocking scene, Hutcherson offers a tantalising glimpse of what he might offer in Mocking Jay Part 2.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives the smirking Heavensbee a wonderfully duplicitous quality making his final role a memorable one.

The latter part of the film offers more action and some impressive spectacle as the empire launches a bombing attack on district 13 and the rebels retaliate in kind.  There’s also a tense sequence in which the rebels attempt a rescue mission in the Capital.  This sequence looks and feels different to the rest of the film and one can only imagine how much better the film would have been if the entire movie been as inspired as this segment.

Mocking Jay Part 2 will no doubt offer greater thrills and resolutions to issues alluded to in this film but by itself Mocking Jay Part 1 won’t convert too many non-Hunger Games devotees to part with the cash for that last instalment.

Nick’s rating: **1/2.

Genre: Science Fiction/ action.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Francis Lawrence.

Release date: 20th Nov 2014.

Running time: 123 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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