There is an exciting, fingernail-biting film (or films or 10-part Netflix series) to be made from Jason Matthews’ best selling trilogy about the spy game between Russia and the U.S. Unfortunately, the recently released “Red Sparrow,” adapted from the first of the books, falls far short of what could have been. What a shame, as author Matthews is a 35-year CIA veteran with a world of experience in foreign countries at the highest level and he possesses great skill as a writer. The heroine of the book, Dominika, a brilliant and ambitious young woman whose journey through the Russian power structure leaves her bitter and enraged, is a first-class characterization perfectly suited to the talents of Jennifer Lawrence. But the script or the directing or maybe even missing scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor have only resulted in a surface portrayal of a woman we wish we knew better.
To be fair, it would be difficult to condense all the action of the 500-plus page book into a two-hour film, and while the adaptation does an okay job of hitting most of the high spots (with the exception of a major change at the end), it winds up being plot-heavy and less than exciting. We are not shocked enough by the violence, the sick carnality, the backstabbings; we are not at the edge of our seats, we do not particularly like or understand the people we are seeing on the screen. Even the “good guys”—CIA agents portrayed by talented American actors like Joel Edgerton and Bill Camp—come across as underwritten and not very interesting. Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds and Charlotte Rampling, all playing Russians, do what they can but only Matthias Schoenaerts, as Dominika’s treacherous uncle, manages to give complexity to his character of a steely eyed Russian official who will sacrifice anything to climb higher in Putin’s government. Still, let me be fair once again: I don’t know how the film will be received by those who have not read the book. Do let me know your thoughts by emailing me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There is another film about a kick-ass woman with a will of iron, but this one works very well. If you like well-done science fiction, artful and glimmering special effects, a script that unfolds its secrets carefully so that you are constantly surprised at each new revelation and, finally, a delicious sense of creepiness throughout, I highly recommend this film. The writer and director of “Annihilation,” Alex Garland, won me over a couple of years ago with another creepy-in-a-good way sci-fi film named “Ex Machina.” Oscar Isaac was in that one and he’s in this one too, as Kane, the missing husband of a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman). When Kane returns alive from what is revealed to be a secret mission into a weirdly alien atmosphere surrounding a remote lighthouse (named The Shimmer), and from which no one else has ever returned, he seems not quite himself. Then he suddenly shuts down physically and is put on life support. Lena, along with four other women scientists (Sonoya Mizuno, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodruguez and Tuva Novotny) volunteer to enter The Shimmer, determined to study and find the truth of what is beyond the mysterious curtain. What is revealed is beyond the laws of nature as we know it, and Garland manages through skillful storytelling, fine actors, flashbacks that fill in some of the questions, and unnerving things that go bang in the night, to thoroughly involve us in the intrigue and the horror. At the end, “Annihilation” sets up fascinating questions about the future of our planet and the basic building blocks that go into the making of a human being.