Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: Hanna

Hanna is a brilliant, unrelenting action thriller in the mold of the Bourne trilogy that will grab you by the front of the shirt and never let go.  It visually extraordinary for an action flick, features stunning performances and an amazing score, and it is undoubtedly the finest mainstream movie released so far this year.
Now that I’ve gotten the hyperbolic, poster-ready quotes out of the way, I should probably admit that this isn’t exactly the majority opinion.  Reviews are a good deal more mixed than that.  Oh, it’s got a 70% positive score on RottenTomatoes, but the majority opinion seems to be that it’s just a decent little thriller, nothing very special.  It’s only got a 57% among the “Top Critics” listed there, and even positive reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert and Glenn Kenny don’t rise above the level of “solid movie, worth watching.”  No one else probably cares about this, but I seriously loved this movie, and I’m rather disconcerted that no one else seems to share that love.  It’s not so much that big-time critics are divided on the movie, but virtually every blogger I read who has reviewed the movie has had a “meh” reaction or worse.  This guy is literally the only person I could find who feels the same way I do, and when you read as many movie sites as I do, that’s rather surprising.
So anyway, your mileage may vary, but I think the movie’s brilliant, and I’m standing by that opinion.  The story finds the titular Hanna as a teenage girl living alone with her father in the arctic forest, hunting caribou with bow and arrow and constantly training in the arts of war.  It turns out that her father, an ex-CIA agent/assassin, has been preparing her for the moment when she will return to civilization and take revenge on agency higher-up Marissa Wiegler for the death of her mother.  When Hanna feels she is ready, her father (Eric Bana) has her flip a switch, notifying the agency where they are, and setting off a non-stop chase thriller filled with intense, brutal action scenes that jumps from Finland to Morocco to Spain to Germany.
The performances here are all excellent--not necessarily nuanced, but tough and bold and exactly what they need to be.  Cate Blanchett plays the villain role as Marissa Wiegler, and while her Southern accent cuts in and out and sounds a bit awkward, she exudes cruel professionalism from every pore and manages to toss in several little character details that suggest a more complex motivation than the script really gives her.  Her oily henchman is played by Tom Hollander of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and he is about as creepy and evil as it is possible to be given his limited lines and screen time.  Eric Bana also has few lines, but he nevertheless manages to convey a small bit of the complexity of a man so driven by revenge he turns his daughter into a weapon.  Does he really love her?  Does he have her best interests at heart?  The movie is ambiguous on this score, but while some might count it a weakness I call it economy in storytelling.  This is a thriller, not a morality drama, and I find the ambiguity intriguing.
The star, of course, is Saoirse Ronan, and what a star she is.  She is a force of nature in this movie.  I have not seen any of her other movies yet, but based on the acclaim she garnered for those entirely different roles (including an Oscar nomination) and her incredible work here I feel I have to call her the most gifted actress of her generation.  With her bleached-blonde hair, too-white skin, and pale eyes she is every inch the teenage killer, expert in every weapon as well as hand-to-hand combat.  Nevertheless, she somehow manages to convey the feelings of a real girl out on her own for the first time, experiencing the wonders of the world with awe and occasionally confusion.  
This comes through in a sequence in the middle of the film when she meets up with a British family on holiday and makes friends with the motor-mouthed, celebrity-obsessed daughter (a hilarious Jessica Barden).  This interlude provides the biggest laughs of what is a surprisingly humorous film, as well as the only moments of tenderness.  Hanna is a killer, but she begins to want more. The British is family is comically liberal and lenient--the parents are hippies who talk of getting back to nature as they tour Third World countries in their giant trailer, letting their daughter run off with boys for a night on the town in Morocco--a sharp contrast to Hanna’s Spartan upbringing.  Nevertheless, this family, mildly dysfunctional as it is, is still suffused with love and real human connection that Hanna has never known.  Unfortunately, her upbringing proves entirely necessary for her future, while the modern family is unprepared.

The direction of the film is splendid, rather a surprise from Joe Wright.  I have only seen his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice before this, and it struck me as half of quite a good movie.  The first half of the film was beautifully done, centering on a wonderful ball scene filled with intricate tracking shots in and around the dancing and social maneuvering, clearly influenced by Welles, Renoir, and Altman.  Over the course of the film, though, the beauty of the cinematography began to overwhelm, as scene-necessitated tracking shots gave way to picturesque vistas that wallowed in sentimentality and heaving bosoms instead of taking advantage of the humor of the situation.  I have not seen Atonement, though it looks quite good despite mixed reviews, or The Soloist, which looks quite bland and uninteresting.  In Hanna, though, Wright steps up to the plate and succeeds enormously.  He has admitted that the action scenes terrified him, that he wasn’t sure if he could do it, and he looked to several other films and filmmakers for influence.  He pulls it off in grand style, filling every frame with beautiful sets, evocative lighting, and sharply blocked fights that he shoots clearly, not with the shaky cam of Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass, nor in slow motion like Zack Snyder, but with clean, well-defined shots that let us see the action.  Except, it should be noted, in a few of Hanna’s fights, when he cuts it up in quick, elliptical editing that shows the results of her violence without trying to show how she did it.  This fits well with the style of the film, but it also avoids putting too much pressure on Ronan’s ability to fight convincingly.  After all, she is tiny compared to many of her assailants, and in real life she could never take them out.  His techniques work, though, and I never once doubted her lethal abilities, though I can see how others might.
Pulsing along with the gorgeous imagery is one of the most unique and exciting soundtracks in recent memory, written and performed by The Chemical Brothers.  The music is alternately loud and menacing and light and bouncy, adding immeasurably to the overall effect of the film.  Wright has known the Brothers for years, and he brought them into the process to quite an extensive degree.  Apparently “the sound effects editor took some of their music and turned it into the sound effects and they took some of the sound effects and turned it into music,” creating an exciting electronic score that nevertheless feels very organic to the film.
I found Hanna to be a stylish blast of adrenaline, a purely kinetic thriller akin to The Bourne Ultimatum, Aliens, or The Road Warrior; a movie whose one purpose is to give as intense and exciting a ride as possible.  I loved it, and I would not hesitate to rank it with those films I just listed as one of the finest action thrillers of its generation.  I can't imagine a situation where it won't be among my favorite films of the year.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Two Recent Movies: Source Code and Paul

Source Code is director Duncan Jones’ folow-up to 2009’s acclaimed Moon, unseen by me.  He acquits himself well here, though not spectacularly, directing a script he did not write where the flaws are mostly in the script.  The film is a clever, fairly satisfying little thriller, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier in a special program tasked with uncovering the terrorist responsible for bombing a commuter train in Chicago.  The plot is full of twists and turns the whole way through, with information meted out miserly to keep up suspense, so any further plot details are spoilers.  Everything is appropriately taut and engaging the whole way through, but I had a few problems with the ending.
[SPOILERS] The politically correct nature of the villain is to be expected at this point, I suppose, though that really only makes it more predictable because we know it could never be a Muslim or vaguely Middle Eastern-looking person.  What’s a little more galling is the cracks at the military-industrial complex, for they are also boring, as well as being clumsy and dumb.  Jeffrey Wright’s character is a genius and a hero, considering what he has created and helped prevent, so the film’s insistence on demonizing him is puzzling and smacks of ideology triumphing over narrative logic.  These are minor gripes, though.  What’s more off-putting is the nature of the film’s denouement.  After a satisfying climax where the killer is found and Gyllenhaal has completed his mission and found peace in death, the film insists on giving him a happy ending in love with Michelle Monghan.  But if this is real, as the film clearly states, an actual reality in another dimension, then what happened to the man whose body Gyllenhaal was inhabiting?  Did he just die?  Have his existence snuffed out by Gyllenhaal, who has the right to do that because he’s the main character?  Because that’s pretty disquieting and odd.  Plus, it suggests that Monaghan will eventually realize that Gyllenhaal is not who she thinks he is, as he has no experience teaching social studies and is now an entirely different person.  And is he just going to remain in this new body for the rest of his life?  And if Wright’s invention really does create different dimensions, doesn’t that change everything?  Like, not just every other iteration that we’ve already seen, but also the whole future?  That just seems like a weird plot thread to leave hanging--not really an intriguing implication, more a fig leaf thrown out to try and cover up plot holes.

I did like all the footage of Chicago, though, where I’ve spent a lot of time.  And the Metra commuter trains, while renamed were easily recognizable, which I found rather exciting, considering how many times I’ve ridden trains like that into the city.  I’ve never seen a Dunkin Donuts on one of those trains, though.  Maybe I just wasn’t riding the right ones, but that suggests a lot more room in the cars than there really is.
Rating: 6/10 stars.  I was going to go with 7, but then I looked at my review and realized how flawed it really was.  It was fun though.
Paul is another collaboration between comic actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who have previously appeared together in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both directed by Edgar Wright.  This film, co-written by the duo, is unfortunately not directed by Wright but by Greg Mottola, previously of Superbad and Adventureland.  That is only one of the film’s problems, but it is perhaps a central one.  Wright could have made this film a good deal more exciting and entertaining than it is, simply by his editing, if nothing else.  Other problems include the casting of Seth Rogen as the titular Paul, a diminutive green alien who speaks perfect English and likes to party.  Rogen makes the character somewhat funny, but never really interesting, and he mugs so much that when he tries to show the character’s softer side--of which there is a surprising amount--he usually botches it, and we don’t care emotionally for anyone at all.
Also problematic is the movie’s surprisingly virulent attack on Christianity.  Krisitn Wiig plays a woman raised by an emotionally abusive fundamentalist father whose faith is first shaken, then completely destroyed by the appearance of Paul.  This is depicted as a liberating experience, as Wiig decides she’s now capable of cursing and fornication, and proceeds to engage gleefully in the former and pursue awkwardly the latter in mildly humorous ways.  Paul claims that his existence “only disproves every Abrahamic religion in their entirety,” which is nonsense, but the film supports this wholeheartedly.  I can respect an honest, intelligently atheist film, but this is neither.  It’s arguments are little more than a couple of jokes, and it sets up a straw man depiction of Christianity (including a Creationist argument for a 4000-year-old Earth, which no one actually believes--even Archbishop Ussher’s infamous dating of Creation to Sunday, Oct. 23, 40004 B.C., would yield 6,000 years) before taking it down in a quick, mocking manner.  Of course, the whole argument is moot because Paul doesn’t really exist in the first place, so he can’t prove or disprove anything.  So it amounts to a mere mocking portrayal of religion, with nothing else to say.
Fortunately, Pegg and Frost can make anything funny, and they give their characters a real sweetness and likability that the movie as a whole doesn't quite achieve.  The rest of the cast is filled with funny people, but most of them are only mildly funny here, and a major cameo at the end falls flat.  The movie’s still pretty fun, and its low-key attitude is in some ways a welcome reprise from the insistent, bombastic comedies so common at the moment.  It’s attempt to be character-driven and humane doesn’t really work, though, and it comes off a little bland instead.  Pegg and Frost are still the best comedy duo in movies at the moment, and I’m looking forward to their next collaboration in Tintin as Thomson and Thompson.  This one just gets a “meh” from me, though.

Rating: 5/10 stars.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 (2004)

This post is for the Raimifest blogathon over at Things That Don't Suck.  It's my first-ever blogathon post, so I'm pretty excited.

If the superhero movie were the western, Superman: The Movie would be Stagecoach--the masterpiece that kicked the genre off in earnest--and The Dark Knight would be The Searchers--the one that revealed the dark heart of the genre, which all others will be measured against afterwards.  But Spider-Man 2 would be Shane, the quintessential evocation of all the genre represents, the clearest version of the basic superhero myth yet produced.

The triumphant sequel to 2002's Spider-Man, which is arguably the quintessential superhero secret origin story (though not the best), Spider-Man 2 provides a blueprint for other superhero sequels to follow.  With the origin story out of the way, the movie can focus on what it does best: the eternal conflicts between hero and villain, hero and love interest, and the call of duty against the wish to have a normal life.  These conflicts are at the heart of any traditional superhero tale, and Spider-Man 2 embodies them more fully than any other superhero movie I know of.

What makes this unique is that it manages to be a full and fully satisfying film while focusing entirely on its central character and his central conflicts.  Like Shane, this is a movie content to tell an old tale in the most simple and iconic way possible and succeed on that basis alone.  It doesn't try to do too much.  Unlike Superman, it doesn't engage in Fordian romanticization, high concept science fiction, or grand epic storytelling.  Unlike The Dark Knight, it doesn't attempt a complex dialectic on the nature of good and evil, law and order, chaos and civilization.  Unlike X-Men, it's not a metaphor for major political issues, and it doesn't involve multiple super-powered characters, each with their own underdeveloped character arc.  It's about Peter Parker, an everyday guy that anyone can relate to, who happens to have superpowers and has to figure out to use them while simultaneously dealing with his own love life and trying to hold down a job.  It's centered in New York City, and it stays there the whole way through--no need to travel the globe or fight battles that threaten the entire planet.  There's plenty of crime to deal with right here, on the smaller, more believable scale.

I confess that I have seen few of Sam Raimi's other films.  My familiarity with him is limited to the Spider-Man trilogy and The Quick and the Dead, a film I found godawful and difficult to sit through.  I have heard from many sources how great his Evil Dead trilogy is, and Darkman and A Simple Plan both look intriguing.  All are on my list to see.  But on the basis of the films I have seen alone, I would still say he is a remarkable director.  Not one of the all-time greats, but one who is capable of working with large budgets on pre-existing properties and making things that give the fans what they want while staying true to his own vision and sensibilities.

The most extraordinary thing I find about Spider-Man 2, is Raimi's ability to juggle great divergences in tone and mood so effortlessly.  It starts with the look and attitude of the film.  Unlike Christopher Nolan's  Batman films, which seem to be attempting to escape their comic book origins by becoming ever more dark and realistic, Raimi's Spider-Man is unapologetically bright and sunny, full of bold colors and fights in broad daylight.  The movie feels like a comic book, and it gets the simple sincerity and enthusiasm that made the original comics so popular and timeless--unlike so many other superhero movies which just come off cheesy, Spider-Man 2's sincerity and decency redeem it.  It doesn't mind offering idealistic speeches once in a while--"I believe there's a hero in all of us,"  "With great power comes great responsibility"--and it is capable of presenting these as simple, heartfelt truths without letting them come as corny, putting an ironic, cynical twist on them, or treating them with such intense seriousness that they become pretentious.  This is an increasingly rare quality in movies these days.  It is something that old masters like Frank Capra and John Ford made their careers on, but no one outside of perhaps Spielberg, and now Raimi, seems able to do today.

The film dances from scene to scene with effortless grace, moving from slapstick hilarity to deadpan subtlety in an instant, then on to intense action with a clear sense of danger, and desperately sad scenes that pack an emotional wallop, then instantly back to humor again without ever tripping over itself or not giving its emotional high points their due.  He even manages to fit in a scene of real terror that feels like something out of a horror movie, when Octavius's tentacles come alive and slaughter the roomful of doctors and nurses.  A big part of the credit for this ought to go to Tobey Maguire, who is perfect as the mild-mannered Peter Parker, a kid who can't catch a break.  He can play the deadpan stuff as straight as Buster Keaton--check him out in the elevator scene, where he complains about the suit chafing a bit too much--but he can also display such infectious enthusiasm we can't help but laugh with delight--see the "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" scene, a reference to another famous western.  He is cute and lovable and innocent, his tears are heartfelt and pathetic, yet he can shift in an instant to righteous anger and heroic action.  This is not an easy combination to pull off, but Maguire never falters, and Raimi shapes his film around that performance.

Hearkening back to '80s style Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, Raimi manages to ladle on the humor and fun and action without neglecting the weighty, iconic image.  He has a terrific sense of pacing which allows scenes to build at their own speed without ever feeling slow or boring, and lets the images tell the story.  Think of the shots of Spidey unconscious on the train, being carried along by the passengers--a shot that could easily have come off as pretentious or too much, by the way, but just avoids it--or the Doc Ock standing tall on the side of a building, daring Spider-Man to come after him, or the super-low angle shot of Peter's fist tightening as his anger builds and he determines to go after the Doc to rescue Mary Jane.  This is not a film that neglects the crowd-pleasing "epic" moments, its a film that knows how to balance the epic with the small to create something truly special.
So I'm finished, and I haven't even talked about what a great villain Alfred Molina makes, or how other supporting actors like J.K. Simmons, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco are so important to the films success.  I haven't mentioned the film's terrific fight sequences, or the highly creative and intense way they are staged, despite being mostly in CG.  I suppose the best way to sum up my feelings about the is film is this:  This movie is the best example of why I love the superhero genre.  When done right, like here, it can be profoundly simple, yet heartfelt and honest, an all-American ideal of heroism and democracy.  This movie embodies more clearly than any other why the superhero is an American icon as enduring as the cowboy, and why the superhero film is the most dominant genre of this new century.