Spies and terrorism: 'Red Sparrow,' '15:17 to Paris'

By Tom Von Malder | May 24, 2018
Photo by: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Lawrence play spies on different sides of the new Cold War in "Red Sparrow."

Owls Head — Red Sparrow (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 140 min.). This Cold War spy caper sets up an intriguing, twisty game of cat and mouse, as well as a psychological profile of a woman who, once her dream career is ruined, is forced into a world of spycraft, much of it about using her body seductively. Based on the award-winning novel by Jason Matthews, with a script by Justin Haythe ("A Cure for Wellness," "Lone Ranger"), the film is directed by Francis Lawrence, who also directed star Jennifer Lawrence in the final three "Hunger Games" films. The film has a "hard" R rating, with some graphic nudity, along with violence and torture.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a ballerina with the Bolshoi, until she breaks her leg in an on-stage accident, which ends her career. Her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts as Vanya Egorov) is deputy director of the SVR, the Russian secret service. Faced with the prospect of her ill mother (Joely Richardson as Nina Egorova) being forced out of the apartment provided to her by the Bolshoi, Dominika accepts an assignment from her uncle to get close to a businessman and swap out his cell phone. After violence ensues, Dominika's choice is to be killed as a witness or go to the Sparrow spy training school, which she later correctly refers to as a "whore school." The school is run by Matron (an emotionless, cold Charlotte Rampling  of the British TV miniseries "London Spy"), and there Dominika is taught how to manipulate people through their weaknesses, which are usually sexual in nature.

Dominika does not really conform in school, but Uncle Vanya, who has lots of meets with Gen. Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and Director Zakharov (Ciaran Hinds), has enough pull to get her an initial assignment of getting close to CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton of "It Comes at Night," "Black Mass") to find out the identity of his contact, "Marble," a mole in Russian intelligence. The film opens by going back-and-forth between Dominika dancing and Nash having an outdoor meet with Marble being interrupted by the police. In this exciting opening, things go wrong for both, as Dominika breaks her leg and Nash barely makes it to the U.S. Embassy and then has to leave Russia forever. Thus, Dominika has to travel to Budapest, where the bulk of the movie was actually filmed, to interact with Nash, who is hoping Marble will reach out to him there.

Much of the rest of the film deals with the games being played by Dominika, who decides to go under her real identity, and Nash, who knows she has been sent to spy on him, but he hopes to turn her to the U.S. side. There also are games between Dominika and her Budapest station boss (Douglas Hodge as Maxim Volontov) and her apartment mate (Thekla Reuten as Marta). Mary-Louise Parker plays the chief of staff of a U.S. senator in Budapest.

Some of the early sexuality is disturbing, but more so is the violence and torture that several characters go through late in the film. At times, and especially when Dominika dyes her hair, the film recalls last year's "Atomic Blonde," another hard-edged spy thriller starring a hard-nosed female character. Perhaps the weakest part of the film is a lack of chemistry between Nash and Dominika, weakening the belief in what they are willing to go through for each other.

The disc comes with many extras, including audio commentary by director Lawrence and 10 deleted scenes (12:20; some very brief), with optional commentary by the director. There also are looks at the origination of the story and its adaptation, with some behind-the-scenes views (12:42); the cast (15:21); the visual authenticity (13:28); being on location in Budapest, Vienna, London and Bratislava (10:56), no sound stages were used; the ballet scenes and stunts, including Lawrence's training (12:12); and post-production, including the music (14:08). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The 15:17 To Paris (Warner Bros, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 94 min.). Director Clint Eastwood decided to make the bold choice of using the actual three Americans who, in 2015, took down a terrorist on a train from Amsterdam to Paris, as well as two of the actual passengers, including one who was severely injured. The three non-actor heroes -- Anthony Sadler, Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone -- are adequate on screen, but the script is a letdown. This is the third film, after "American Sniper" and "Sully," that Eastwood has made about real-life heroes, which he discusses in the extras.

How does one fill a film about an incident that only took about five minutes? In this instance, it goes back to when the three main characters met at about age 8 and follows them throw junior high school. To keep the viewer interested, there are brief flashes forward to what occurs on the train, but these are just teases. Instead, we get a lot about Stone trying for Air Force Pararescue, but being disqualified due to lack of depth perception, then failing out of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training. Next, there is extended touring of Rome, Venice (including a long bit with a woman they meet who was from California too), Berlin and Amsterdam by Stone and Sadler, with Skarlatos joining up in Berlin.

I suspect most viewers will be bored by this point. However, when the assault begins on the train, there is a terrific action mini-movie, including Stone's efforts to save Mark Moogalian (he and his wife also play themselves), who was shot in the back by terrorist Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani), after he grabbed El Khazzani's AK-47 from his hands and ran away down the train car.

I must admit I was puzzled by the ending as the three American heroes receive the French Legion of Honour, because a fourth man also received a medal and I did not remember him at all from earlier in the film. He turns out to be Chris Norman (also playing himself), a British businessman who helped subdue El Khazzani. Here, Eastwood's documentary style fails as wondering who Norman is turns out to be a distraction, because it was not properly explained or even shown earlier.

The extras are brief, but interesting. There is a look at the main characters of the film (8:11), with the three Americans and Moogalian and his wife talking about the train incident; and a look at making of the film, which used a real train (12:27). Grade: film and extras 1.5 stars

The Bloodthirsty Trilogy (Japan, 1970-74, Arrow, 2 Blu-rays, NR, 245 min.). The set  includes three films: "The Vampire Doll," aka "Legacy of Dracula"; "Lake of Dracula"; and "Evil of Dracula." While the three Japanese horror films, directed by Michio Yamamoto for Toho Studios, are patterned after the successful Hammer Studios gothic horror films of the 1960s, Dracula himself never appears in any of the films.

With only the first film, "The Vampire Doll," available for review, I'm not sure in the other two films are an improvement. "The Vampire Doll," despite a couple of good atmospheric scenes, was somewhat a disappointment in the horror department. A young man (Atsuo Nakamura as Kazuhiko Sagawa) goes to visit his fiancé (Yukiko  Kobayashi as Yuko Nonomura) after being away for several months. Arriving at her home, which is very much in the Western style, he is informed by Yuko's mother (Yoko Minakaze as Shidu Nonomura) that she died in a landslide while driving two weeks earlier. Nakamura stays the night, believes he sees Yuko a couple of times, even following her to her grave, where Yuko asks him to kill her. The film then switches to Nakamura's sister (Kayo Matsuo as Keiko), who has not heard from her brother in eight or five days (the subtitles indicate both in two different spots). Keiko decides to find her brother, traveling to Yuko's home with her own boyfriend (Akira Nakao as Hiroshi Takagi). Oh yes, Shido has a deaf mute servant (Kaku Takashina as Genzo, similar to the role Boris Karloff played in the haunted house film, "The Old Dark House").  Genzo apparently started taking care of Shido after she was the only survivor of a deadly home invasion. Shido gave birth to Yuko nine months later.

While Yuko does go for her victims' throats, the film claims she was kept alive through hypnosis, a very unlikely cause  of either vampirism or forestalling death. "Lake of Dracula" begins with a young girl having a nightmare of a vampire with golden eyes. Eighteen years later, a package containing an empty coffin turns up at a nearby lake. In "Evil of Dracula," a professor takes up a new post at an all-girls school, only to learn the principal has a dark secret and the students are in danger.

Bonus features include a stills gallery for each film and a discussion by critic and writer Kim Newman on the three films and Japanese horror films in general (16:06). Grade: Vampire Doll 2.5 stars; extras 1.5 stars

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