Three of this week’s four opening movies are doing poorly in early reviews (with only “the Party” faring well overall) but I actually enjoyed all of them, albeit with perhaps a couple of relatively slim margins of victory. Here’s a quick moviebriefs roundup for the week.
“Red Sparrow” is a spy story in which an injured dancer (Jennifer Lawrence) is co-opted into a career in Russian espionage as a means to support her ailing mother. She’s sent to a remote training academy where students are taught to exploit every situation and relationship, and to use their bodies in service to the state, before being pulled from the program to help search for a double-agent. The story might have been more believable had she been in the program longer, perhaps since childhood, but part of what we’re being sold here is that she’s a natural at these things, more so even than her superiors. Where it works best is that it manages to avoid telegraphing every development, leaving certain details unresolved until the final scenes, without resorting to trickery. It also focuses on battles of wit and cunning rather than the unlikely brute force of the recent “Atomic Blonde.” At times empowering, at times exploitative, it won me over by managing to remain mysterious.
Bruce Willis stars in a remake of 1974’s “Death Wish,” which originally starred Charles Bronson as architect Paul Kersey, who turns vigilante after his wife is killed (and Bronson continued to kill his way through four sequels). Here, the name is the same but the profession changes to trauma surgeon, a change that is narratively significant. Less significant is the reversal of direction, with the original starting in New York and ending in Chicago and the re-make starting in Chicago and ending in New York. But it’s a well-updated story with good structure and elements that are timely in terms of both current media and current debates on gun availability and control. The weak part, however, is Willis. There are action sequences and even one or two grindhouse-worthy scenes that will likely keep genre fans content, but some of the quieter scenes of loss and despair are awkwardly awful. Some may squirm in their seats at the onscreen violence but others may squirm equally at the line delivery, with Willis delivering bullets better than emotions. Directed by Eli Roth from a screenplay by Sac State grad and ex-local Joe Carnahan, it’s a project that has reportedly had many personnel changes and while I enjoyed the less talkative portions of the film just enough, it’s disappointing to think that we might have had Carnahan directing Liam Neeson and Frank Grillo again (“The Grey”).
The film I enjoyed most this week is the almost claustrophobically constrained “The Party” in which a newly appointed UK Minister of Health is intent on celebrating her success with her oldest and closest friends. Unbeknownst to her, however, they all have news or developments of their own that overshadow her accomplishment. It’s a delightfully intertwined comedy with a fantastic cast of only seven actors: Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, and Cherry Jones, all of whom are equally excellent and all of whom received equal pay for their roles in the film. Perhaps off-putting to some, the film is both black and white and runs for a scant 71 minutes, with barely more than an hour of content if the credits aren’t counted. But it’s a triumph of tight, minimalistic filmmaking that demonstrates what can be done with limited resources. Yes, the cast here is remarkable (and potentially expensive), but it was shot in just two weeks and the screenplay itself calls for nothing that couldn’t be achieved on a very modest budget. “The Party” is well worth watching and well worth taking a film student to.
I was also affected positively by the meandering “Nostalgia,” a film that contemplates the value we place on belongings and the accumulated debris of a lifetime. It follows a series of individuals whose paths don’t so much cross as meet end to end as they each have reason to ponder the importance of mementoes, photographs, music, and the relationships they represent and remind us of. In one segment a young woman is reluctant to go and organize her grandfather’s possessions while in another, an elderly woman is denied a similar opportunity to organize her own, after a massive house fire destroys almost everything she had owned. It’s not especially subtle as it moves from circumstance to circumstance, and as it transitions to a younger generation for whom a short lifetime of pictures and songs might be held on a hard drive rather than in dusty boxes, but it’s an effective conversation starter (I’ve already talked about it with one class of students despite having only watched it last night). “Nostalgia” might have hit close to home for me, at this particular moment, having just moved and having just assisted my parents in moving, but it’s a topic that likely would have appealed to me even absent that timing. And it was a treat to watch Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn deliver both quality and, yes, nostalgia.