For a re­view of “Red Sparrow,”

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With her bot­tle- blonde locks, fa­cil­ity with a knife and dour Eastern Euro­pean play­ground, Jen­nifer Lawrence’s “Red Sparrow” is seem­ingly the 2018 ver­sion of Char­l­ize Theron’s “Atomic Blonde.” But that’s where the com­par­isons end. While the ’ 80s Ber­lin- set “Atomic Blonde” was a vi­o­lent, col­or­ful, sexy and darkly ab­sur­dist film, Rus­sian spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” di­rected by Fran­cis Lawrence, is epic, me­thod­i­cal and un­for­tu­nately plod­ding, jet­ti­son­ing thrills for a stul­ti­fy­ing mood­i­ness.

The film is based on the novel by re­tired CIA spook Ja­son Matthews, who racked up over three decades of ex­pe­ri­ence in the field. In the story of “Red Sparrow,” poor but po­lit­i­cally con­nected bal­le­rina Do­minika ( Lawrence) is drawn into a shad­owy spy world by her high- rank­ing SVR of­fi­cer Un­cle Vanya ( Matthias Schoe­naerts) when her dance ca­reer is ended with a “Show­girls”- style sab­o­tage. He uses her as bait for one of his tar­gets, and with a dead busi­ness­man’s blood on her skin and no way to sup­port her­self or her ail­ing mother, she ac­cepts his of­fer to train as a “Sparrow” — spies who use sex and se­duc­tion to psy­cho­log­i­cally ma­nip­u­late and col­lect in­for­ma­tion from their tar­gets.

Do­minika quickly flames out at Sparrow school — she’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­sis­tant and com­pli­ant to the sadis­tic head­mistress played by Char­lotte Ram­pling. But she proves her met­tle with a would- be rapist, de­stroy­ing him phys­i­cally and men­tally. Turns out she’s a nat­u­ral, so they send her off to Bu­dapest for her first gig, to gain the trust of a U. S. spy named Nate Nash ( Joel Edger­ton) who’s been re­ceiv­ing in­tel from a mole buried deep in the ranks of Rus­sian se­cu­rity.

Fran­cis Lawrence’s film­mak­ing in “Red Sparrow” is as se­duc­tive as its hero­ine, and he cre­ates gor­geous com­po­si­tions in a pal­ette of red and gray, knit to­gether with seam­less edit­ing. The film is beau­ti­ful to look at, but it’s empty and mean­ing­less. The sen­sa­tional im­ages add up to a whole lot of provo­ca­tion, but there isn’t a shred of sub­stance to be found. Matthew’s book of­fers prom­ises of au­then­tic­ity, but what comes through in Justin Laythe’s script and the cast­ing choices — there are no rec­og­niz­ably Rus­sian ac­tors on screen and bad ac­cents abound— is just a hol­low car­i­ca­ture of Rus­sia, wrapped up in a plot that’s both overly con­vo­luted and dull.

It’s dif­fi­cult to en­joy watch­ing Do­minika se­duce and de­stroy be­cause she’s act­ing against her will, forced to be a Sparrow to keep her mother cared for. In “Atomic Blonde,” Theron’s Lor­raine was a pro­fes­sional who did her job and had fun with it. Do­minika, de­spite hermys­te­ri­ous tal­ent for this line of work, is ul­ti­mately a vic­tim, pimped out by her un­cle, pressed into sex­ual ser­vice for the state. There’s noth­ing em­pow­er­ing about this char­ac­ter or her story.

Jen­nifer Lawrence plays Do­minika with a placid poker face to pre­serve her se­crets and the script’s— we never knowwhen she’s be­ing sin­cere and with whom, and it’s all in ser­vice of keep­ing the twists and turns in place. But since we never know her, we can never re­late to her, un­der­stand her or get on her side. Her only mo­ti­va­tion is her sick mother, but it’s such a shal­low sub­plot. She strug­gles against her roles while also tak­ing to it like a duck to wa­ter, and we never un­der­stand her, or even know who she is. Maybe that’s idea, and we’re all just vic­tims of the Red Sparrow her­self.

“Red Sparrow,” a Twentieth Cen­tury Fox re­lease, is rated R for strong vi­o­lence, tor­ture, sex­ual con­tent, lan­guage and some graphic nu­dity. Run­ning time: 139 min­utes. ★★ 


Sa­muel Maoz’s “Fox­trot” opens with a prom­i­nent credit: “A Ger­man- French- Is­raeliSwiss co- pro­duc­tion.” Though this is Is­rael’s Os­car en­try, and a nom­i­nee for Best For­eign Lan­guage film, that in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tion lin­eage seems more sig­nif­i­cant than just the source of fi­nanc­ing. “Fox­trot” is a film about Is­rael, but it is about Is­rael’s re­la­tion­ship to his­tory as it re­lates to it­self, and other coun­tries, in con­flict, and the in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma of war as it ra­di­ates through fam­i­lies.

Writ­ten and di­rected by Is­raeli film­maker Maoz, “Fox­trot” is an ex­plo­ration of Is­raeli mil­i­tary life that is at once har­row­ing and ab­surd. It even an­gered Is­raeli Min­is­ter of Cul­ture Miri Regev af­ter it won a grand jury prize at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val last year, and while its de­pic­tion is spe­cific to Is­rael and Is­raeli his­tory, the ideas in play could be a gen­eral con­dem­na­tion of war it­self.

The film opens with the Feld­man par­ents re­ceiv­ing the news that their son, Jonathan, a sol­dier, has been killed. Upon greeting a pair of of­fi­cers at the front door, Mrs. Feld­man, Daphna ( Sarah Adler) col­lapses and is se­dated, while Mr. Feld­man, Michael ( Lior Ashke­nazi) is ren­dered nearly cata­tonic. The only in­struc­tion he is able to fol­low is to drink a glass of wa­ter ev­ery hour, which the of­fi­cers have in­structed him to do, even set­ting an alarm on his phone.

As the fu­neral ar­range­ments are be­ing made, and fam­ily mem­bers be­gin to gather and grieve, the of­fi­cers re­turn— they’ve made amis­take. It was an­other Jonathan Feld­man who was killed, and a case of mis­taken iden­tity. So sorry. This is what turns Michael from a zom­bie into a rage- filled fa­ther, de­mand­ing to see his son.

“Fox­trot” is bro­ken into three dis­tinct acts, the se­cond of which fol­lows Jonathan’s ( Yona­ton Shi­ray) life sta­tioned at a re­mote out­post. He and his bud­dies wave camels through the checkpoint and scan IDs in rain or shine. They eat canned food and sleep in a ship­ping con­tainer sink­ing into the mud ( a pow­er­ful sym­bol). They tell fam­ily sto­ries, draw dirty pic­tures and scan and scan IDs. This ex­pe­ri­ence of “war” is so ba­nal it’s hor­rific.

The acts are stylis­ti­cally dis­tinct, though linked through the unique cam­era move­ments lead­ing us into the whirlpool of ab­sur­dity swirled by mil­i­tary chain- of­com­mand, whether at the out­post or in the Feld­man home. These bored soldiers don’t face dan­ger, though they are primed for it. Trapped by labyrinthine pro­to­col, the sit­u­a­tion is preg­nant with the po­ten­tial to shat­ter and splin­ter into a mil­lion lit­tle pieces with one mis­take, one re­ac­tion, one act.

“Fox­trot” lulls you into a rhythm and then pulls the rug out from un­der you again and again, desta­bi­liz­ing it­self as a means of mak­ing you look closer, to ex­am­ine the sto­ries and anec­dotes and de­tails. A child­hood tale of Jonathan’s that seems like a quirky fam­ily story re­veals it­self as a metaphor for the ways in which cul­ture and tra­di­tion have been per­verted by the mod­ern world, dis­torted af­ter years and years.

The ex­plo­ration of na­tional iden­tity and in­ter­gen­er­a­tional re­la­tion­ships through an in­ti­mate fam­ily tragedy is akin to an­other nom­i­nee for Best For­eign Lan­guage film, Rus­sia’s “Love­less,” which also uses the story of a lost boy to sug­gest the ways in which these na­tions have lost them­selves in post- moder­nity.

“Fox­trot” is arch and ironic, and also dev­as­tat­ingly sad. Through the al­le­gory of this fam­ily’s tale, Maoz crit­i­cizes the end­less, mean­ing­less war that con­tin­ues on and on in a fu­tile dance, a never- end­ing box step that al­ways leads us back to the be­gin­ning.

“Fox­trot,” a Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics re­lease, is rated R for some sex­ual con­tent in­clud­ing graphic im­ages, and brief drug use. Run­ning time: 111 min­utes. ★★★  


Lior Ashke­nazi, left, and Sarah Adler star in the Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics re­lease “Fox­trot.”

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