Impactful Women Deliver Gold, Red (and some green)
Reviews by Ken Burke
A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In this Chilean film (so, obviously, be prepared for subtitles unless you’re fluent in Spanish) a relatively-young transgender woman’s involved with a noticeably-older man whose ex-wife (left by her husband for the younger lover) and most of the rest of his family have hostile feelings toward their relative’s new paramour both because of the marriage breakup and the angry homophobia many of them have for this transforming female whom they simply reject as a “faggot.” All of this hostility comes to a head when the man suddenly takes ill and dies, leaving his new lady in a very vulnerable state where housing and transportation are concerned (the others want the older man’s car and apartment), while her main source of income as a waitress is somewhat threatened when the police keep probing as to why the dead man had several bruises (the result of falling down some stairs on the way to the hospital). The constant rejections at many levels this young woman faces are disturbing to watch, but she continues to resist becoming further brutalized by them, even as she has limited options of support in a generally-hostile-society. Daniela Vega as the woman is transgender herself, rather new to acting, but she presents a compelling screen presence throughout this story, one of the many successful factors leading to A Fantastic Woman recently receiving the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.*
*Although fewer viewers are becoming aware of such victories for more independent cinematic offerings as the TV audience continues to decline for Oscar broadcasts, likely because the folks packing into 2017's top grossers found little among the nominees to tweak their interests, whereas the films I admired most got considerably more notice from the Oscar nominators and final voters.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: After some gorgeous opening shots of Iguazú Falls (I assume that's what we see, based on an upcoming plot development), we leisurely follow Orlando (Francisco Reyes) from an afternoon trip to the sauna, back to his office (he owns a printing company), then to his upscale apartment house where he gets some paper and an envelope from the concierge before heading to a nightclub to enjoy the singing of Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega)—even as she offers a caustic song about “your love is like yesterday’s newspaper” (clearly not aimed at him, as we'll soon see)—after which they celebrate her birthday at a Chinese restaurant where he gives her the envelope with the promise of a trip to those Falls (yet he’s misplaced the tickets somewhere, maybe at the sauna) before they’re back at his apartment (she’s in the process of moving in so her suitcases aren’t even all unpacked yet) where they make love before retiring for the night. From there it all goes bad as Orlando wakes up with a headache along with weakness leaving him barely able to stand. Marina tries to rush him to a hospital but first he takes a bad fall down a flight of stairs; upon arriving at the emergency room he’s rushed into medical care but soon dies from an aneurysm; however, Marina’s miseries are just beginning because on top of her grief at suddenly losing her lover she’s the object of suspicion from just about anyone who looks at her because she’s a transgender woman still in process of total transition (so her I.D. shows her as Daniel) with facial features and a muscular body suggesting more male than female (she likely still has her Daniel genitals, based on implications in some scenes), she has neither marital nor family status with Orlando so the hospital staff’s reluctant to interact with her too much, further the bruises from the fall look suspicious enough to call in the police so she’s soon being interrogated by Detective Adriana Cortés (Amparo Noguera), concerned that Marina’s either been abused by Orlando or somehow attacked him although the cop's surprise appearance at Marina’s place of employment raises notable concerns toward her waitress day-job.
That suspicion follows up more intensely the next day when Marina’s forced to be photographed nude to prove she has no bruises (under threat of charges being filed unless she relents in her opposition), but even with the police satisfied that she owes them nothing further Marina still faces difficulties from Orlando’s family who reject her emerged female identity, consider her to be just a gay homewrecker (apparently Orlando left his wife to be with her, despite Marina's transitioning gender identity and a considerable age gap [he was 57, she’s easily 25 years younger]) especially ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) who wants the car back, son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) who wants her out of the apartment as close to immediately as possible (only Orlando’s brother Gabriel—Gabo—[Luis Gnecco] shows her any sympathy). ⇒When Marina attempts to attend the wake, she’s ushered out but as she’s walking home (by now living with her sister, Wanda [Trinidad González], and brother-in-law, Gastón [Néstor Cantillana], after having found someone’s [probably Bruno] been in her apartment, leaving half-eaten-pizza and other debris, taking away her German Shepherd, Diabla) Bruno and some other male relatives drive by, taunt her, then grab her, cover her head with transparent tape so she can’t talk before leaving her in an alley. In remorse over everything she’s experienced she wanders to a nightclub where she seemingly gives a picked-up-male a blowjob (then she’s part of what seems to be a fantasy dance routine by the club patrons) before finally making her way back to her sister’s place where Gastón’s just barely supportive of her.
When Marina further defies Orlando’s family’s orders by showing up at the funeral (although it’s already over when she arrives) they’re belligerent again, but this time she yells back, jumps up and down on top of their car before running into the mausoleum to look for Orlando’s body. With what appears to be a vision of his appearance (she’s had a few of these previously, although this time he seems physically-present-enough to passionately kiss her) she seems to be led to his body just before it’s rolled into the cremation fires. End scenes show her running in the hills above Santiago somehow reunited with her dog, nude looking intently into a small mirror which covers her crotch, angelically singing classical music in a theatre accompanied by musicians including her singing teacher (Sergio Hernández) whom she tried to turn to for some comfort during an earlier scene.⇐
So What? According to director Lelio (in the press kit notes), his intention for this film is the following: “I see A Fantastic Woman as a film of aesthetic splendor, narrative vigor, tension and emotion. Polytonal, multi-experiential, multi-emotional. It’s a film that is both a celebration and examination of its main character: Marina Vidal. What will the viewers see when they see Marina? A woman, a man, or the sum of both? They will see a human being who constantly changes before their eyes, who flows, vibrates, and modifies herself. But what they are seeing isn’t precisely what they are seeing, and this condition turns Marina into a vortex that attracts the viewer’s fantasy and desire, inviting them to explore the limits of their own empathy. […] I like to think that the film, like Marina, its central character, is not afraid of pleasure and like her, has a striking and shiny surface. It tries to combine the narrative and the visual pleasure in games of appearances that want to captivate. A sort of Trojan horse loaded with humanity.” For those expecting a purely-straightforward-drama, this film’s a bit of a Trojan horse as well, slipping in touches of unexpected surrealism including those occasional appearances of Orlando (seemingly only in Marina’s mind’s eye yet rendered photographically-tangible—especially that final kiss—so on the surface at least they look as substantive as anything else we see in the film), that choreographically-aggressive-dance-scene inserted into the end of Marina’s traumatized visit to the nightclub, along with another Expressionist interlude as we hear her talking to her singing teacher about her sorrowful confusion while we’re shown her walking from screen right to left against an increasingly-strong-windstorm that almost blows her over. Otherwise, though, this story unfolds with a deliberative pace despite its frequent bitter-emotional-content, with a lot of closeups of Marina’s troubled face, effective tactics for making inner feelings externally explicit but possibly a bit off-putting if you’d prefer to not witness such calculated cinematic intrusions into the flow of an otherwise-linear-exposition of the plot’s chronology (although an easy clue toward such exists right in the film’s title, with "Fantastic" not only intended to compliment the lead character's personality but it's also a notation from Lelio we'll be exploring a range of encounters transcending the standard intra-family-dramatic-struggles).
Bottom Line Final Comments: A Fantastic Woman hasn’t made much of a financial impact in domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters, earning only about $782,000 in ticket sales after 5 weeks in release (I’ve got no information on its box-office-returns internationally), but that’s to be expected given it’s only playing in 89 venues currently, even with strong critical support (Rotten Tomatoes offers 94% positive reviews, Metacritic’s average score is 86% [quite high for them]; more details in the Related Links section farther below) not able to generate any better response up to this point. That could easily change, though, in exhibition opportunities along with increased sales since it’s won the Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film (see our previous posting for extensive details on many of the 2018 nominees for 2017 releases along with the complete list of winners), a well-deserved-honor compared to the strength of the other 2 contenders I’ve had the opportunity to see, The Insult (Zaid Doueiri) from Lebanon and The Square (Ruben Östlund) from Sweden, both of which could easily have taken home the prized statuette. Although with a background more established in singing than acting, Vega commands an impressive screen presence that could almost challenge Oscar’s Best Actress nominees this year (nevertheless, I’d have to stand pat with the 5 official contenders given their even-better-portrayals) but Vega (I have to wonder if the character’s male name of Daniel isn’t an obvious reference to the actor’s actual name of Daniela) demonstrates extraordinary range in reaction to the various impactful situations in which she finds herself, delights us at the beginning and end of the narrative with her mesmerizing voice, and either by directorial intention or pure chance still shows enough maleness in facial features/body structure to illustrate why the homophobic men (as well as the unnecessarily-off-put hospital staff and others in the story) are constantly taken aback (if not outright violently abusive) in their reaction to this woman who confuses/confounds/threatens their expectations of gender roles by still having enough of a man's appearance. (At the Oscar winners’ podium with director Lelio, Vega looked notably more feminine to me implying that her real-life-transition’s progressed further since the time of filming, something you can also recognize in the interview video in Related Links.)
She sees herself as a “natural woman” (as did Orlando, even though his family likely was so hostile to Marina in fear that if their relative’s lover was actually homosexual than Orlando would be as well, another source of fear and shame for them), emphasized by the Aretha Franklin rendition of that song playing on the radio as Marina drives her car to where it’s to be turned over to Sonia. Therefore, it seems only “natural” to me to end this review with my usual choice of a last bit of commentary through a Musical Metaphor which “naturally” should be “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a powerful number I’ll give to you in 2 versions, first by co-songwriter Carol King (along with Gerry Goffin, on her 1971 Tapestry album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOyvYnkdEcc, followed by Franklin’s tribute to King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHsnZT7Z2yQ (although Aretha’s really the one who made this song famous with her 1968 hit, found on that year’s “Lady Soul” album). Once you’ve absorbed all of that emotion, we’ll briefly turn our attention to another woman making her usual big impact on screen, Jennifer Lawrence, but in a more physical manner than usual this time (except when she was slinging those Hunger Games [Gary Ross, 2012; Francis Lawrence, 2013, 2014, 2015] arrows).
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence)
An injured Russian ballerina must work in her uncle’s spy network to retain medical aid for her ailing mother, so after unwitting involvement in the brutal execution of a state enemy she’s sent to “Sparrow” school to learn the art of merging seduction with undercover work. Her assignment is to connect with a CIA spy to learn the identity of a high-ranking Russian mole.
Here’s the trailer:
Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
To get back to this posting’s title, we’ve seen the “gold” in A Fantastic Woman’s Oscar win, now we have the “red,” referring to the Russian-focus of Red Sparrow’s plot (even though it’s set in present-day rather than under "Red" Communist rule, but that’s the title of the foundational novel [Jason Matthews, 2013] which, along with Vladimir Putin’s constant route back to lifetime dictatorship and Cold War-era-conflicts with the West, probably doesn’t make that reference so anachronistic after all). Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence; no relation to the director) is a star of the Bolshoi Ballet (in a movie where all the dialogue’s in English no matter what language is likely being spoken so no subtitles worries here), romantically-linked to her costar, but her life takes as bad a turn as her leg during an onstage-accident, ending her career with her state-sponsored dwelling and medical care for her sick mother, Nina (Joely Richardson), in jeopardy so she’s forced to turn to her government-Intelligence-honcho Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts)—many say he (appropriately) looks like a younger Putin—for help (he tells her the injury was no accident but a plan by her lover to replace her with another dancer; what she does to the 2 of them with a golf club wouldn’t be allowed in a PGA tournament). Ivan sets her up for a bedroom-liaison with a political target, Dmitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad), to switch cell phones but instead intruding assassin Simyonov (Sergej Onopko) kills Ustinov while he’s in the process of raping Dominika (all part of the plan, which she’s now witness to), resulting in her being whisked off to Sparrow school (rather than be executed), run by a stern matron (Charlotte Rampling), where spies learn their craft through tactics of sexual seduction.
Dominika resists some of her training, especially when facing reprimand for injuring a fellow cadet who tried to rape her in the shower, but she finds ways of exerting her own power such as stripping nude in the classroom, making herself boldly available to her assailant who’s now too intimidated to even touch her again. Soon, she’s sent off to Budapest on a mission of cozying up to American CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) to learn whom his mole is, someone high in the Russian spy ranks.
When they meet it’s clear they know much about each other’s backgrounds with Nash determined to turn her for America’s benefit, Dominika willing due to the anger she feels about her uncle’s manipulations with her mother’s health hanging in the balance. All of this leads to London where disgruntled Stephanie Boucher (Mary-Louise Parker), a U.S. Senator’s chief of staff, is willing to turn over discs with top-secret-info to the Russians, specifically Dominika (but she and Nate carry out an almost-botched-plan to switch them for useless duplicates). ⇒However, real problems emerge when Boucher’s killed accidently in the street after the arranged drop making the Russians suspicious of Dominika so she’s whisked back to Moscow, Nash unable to help her. Back home she maintains her innocence—despite being badly beaten (these scenes enter the realm of torture porn)—then convinces her superiors to send her back to Hungary to finish her mission of identifying the mole. Dominika spends a mutually-satisfying-sex-night with Nash but wakes the next morning to find him captured and tortured by back-again-sadist Simyonov; she goes along with it to protect her cover story until she and Nash overpower and kill Simyonov, but both of them become badly injured. While recovering under American protection she’s visited by General Vladimir Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) who admits he’s the mole, disgusted with the direction their country’s now headed.
He’s willing for her to expose him in return for taking his clandestine place, but when a spy switch occurs at the Budapest airport as she’s given back to the Russians the mole the Americans receive is Uncle Ivan (through quick flashbacks we see how Dominika set him up for this ruse, with seemingly incontrovertible evidence), but a Russian sniper kills him. As it all ends (with many more complications in a 2 hr. 20 min. running time than I’ve noted) she’s a decorated hero (now in place as a new mole), Korchnoi’s there to help, and a private call comes in for her probably from Nash.⇐
If you’re interested in watching some brief attempts at grotesque-male-ego-driven-rape, vicious torture shots of Dominika being battered within an inch of her life, a even more disgusting torture scene when Nash’s skin is being peeling off to force him to divulge the mole’s name followed by a bloody knife battle with all 3 combatants either badly injured or dead, seeing Jennifer Lawrence in some exquisite outfits when she’s in state-demanded-seduction-mode or completely in the buff (although a well-placed-shoulder hides her crotch) in that confrontational classroom scene, or racing along with some nicely-structured-tension while trying to follow this convoluted plot (much is shown but little is revealed until the end) you might well enjoy Red Sparrow more than I did (despite its superbly-chosen-cast). My experience with it was too much like that of my initial viewing of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011; review in our January 6, 2012 posting [please ignore the lousy, word-heavy layout as much as you can; we’ve tried hard to improve since then])—itself based on a novel (John le Carré, 1974), also with Budapest scenes and Russian intrigue, a mole within the upper-echelons of a spy network, Ciarán Hinds as a spy honcho in both movies (Roy Bland ["Soldier"] in Tinker …, Col. Zacharov in … Sparrow), crucial scenes set in London—but with the overriding resemblance being a soundtrack presented at such low volume I could hardly tell what was happening most of the time (with Tinker … I simply saw it again in another theater, followed it much better), although in my experience with the former one I still found it intriguing enough to give it 4 stars anyway because of a solid sense of its underlying fascination. However, with … Sparrow even after I asked for the volume to be raised (which worked for about 10 min. before it began to fade again) my difficulties in following the dialogue didn’t reveal any underlying fascination, just a lot of grim faces, cruel actions, along with little sense that any spy’s mission was motivated by ideological purpose as much as just mission success by any bloody means available.
Critics at the chief summary sites weren’t all that impressed either, with a measly 50% positive reviews at RT, a surprisingly-slightly-higher-result of a 54% average score at MC (more details just below if you like), although audiences worldwide seemingly found a reason to attend with a total haul on opening weekend of $43.4 million ($16.9 million of it from domestic theaters) so the “green” of my title has relevance also but with a need to continue pulling in dollars at such a rate in order to balance out this movie’s $69 million budget (which may be difficult to do for any of the competition due to another color continuing to make an impact at the box-office, Black Panther [Ryan Coogler; review in our February 22, 2018 posting] which is now at roughly $900 million worldwide, making its domestic haul of $502 million #9 on that All-Time list). Well, that’s enough about Red Sparrow so I’ll cap off my comments with a Musical Metaphor (of marginal substance from a commentary standpoint, just like the movie is from a significance standpoint unless you're really fascinated with cruel interpersonal violence) combining spies and Russia, the theme from James Bond’s From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lRuXckWC_8. But if that just reminds you too much of the increasingly-probable Trump-Putin collusion scandals and you need something else to help take your mind off such trauma until next we meet you might want to visit this compilation of all the Bond theme songs, from Dr. No (Young, 1962) to Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015; review in our November 12, 2015 posting). Happy binge-007-listening, buckaroos!
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.
AND … at least until the Oscars for 2017’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, March 4, 2018 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2017 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists. You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2017 along with the Oscar nominees and winners for 2017 films.
Here’s more information about A Fantastic Woman:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRyK_9zDg98 (35:58 interview with director Sebastián Lelio and actor Daniela Vega)
Here’s more information about Red Sparrow:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfP4EAwwENQ (2:03 anatomy of a scene from the movie by director Francis Lawrence)
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 69,379 (just a couple hundred shy of our all-time-high so our ongoing thanks to all of you worldwide for your support of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (again hitting 5 of our 6 hoped-for-continents [Hey, Africa, we've celebrated Wakanda—see that February 22, 2018 posting—so where are you?]):