Posted by abby on April 22, 2011
Language: English, French, German
Runtime: 111 minutes
Plot: A 16-year-old who was raised by her father to be the perfect assassin is dispatched on a mission across Europe, tracked by a ruthless intelligence agent and her operatives.
I’m a woman of simple needs when it comes to movies. To my mind, a really good film hits at least three out of four criteria. I want to be entertained. I want good writing (including a good story). The acting needs to be convincing. And, finally, the movie needs to look good and be made intelligently. If you get these parts right, everything else will fall into place. If you don’t, it’s much harder to recover.
“Hanna” is a movie that hits nearly all the right spots. It’s wonderfully stylized, and as entertaining as you’d expect, while keeping its head. But the spot it misses is a big one: story. The dialogue and plot development in this movie depend more on showing than telling. While this is a positive characteristic in most other films, with “Hanna,” the script relies too much on showing, and too little on telling, leaving a lot to be desired.
The story, despite initial appearances, is so simple it’s almost nonexistent. Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) lives with her father (Eric Bana) in a wintry forest. He’s trained her to be an efficient little killer, with one purpose in life: to hunt down C.I.A. agent Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchett) and kill her. The day Hanna completes her training, she flips the switch on a signal that will lead Weigler’s people to her, and the hunt is on.
Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s spare script structures the story like a fairytale and the film is filled with elements that won’t let you forget that. Hanna and her father plan to rendezvous at Wilhelm Grimm’s house, for example. Another scene has Blanchett’s icy Weigler standing in front of a wolf’s mouth. It’s an intriguingly dark concept, and, like a lot of fairy tales, doesn’t include much plot or character development apart from Hanna herself, only characters who serve as obstacles or points of assistance along the way. The most entertaining is a hippie family Hanna tags along with—the always enjoyable Olivia Williams is particularly fun as the mother. Tom Hollander is also good as a creepy assassin who wears impeccably clean track suits and tennis whites, and surrounds himself with a gang of skinheads.
Major props also to director Joe Wright, who seemed to know exactly what he wanted the film to look and feel like. His uses of lighting, editing and music are excellent, all razor sharp and timed precisely. Wright is apparently responsible for reuniting the Chemical Brothers to do “Hanna’s” music, a choice that fits this movie as perfectly as Daft Punk’s “Tron Legacy” score. It appears, in comparing Wright’s previous work like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement” with “Hanna” that the director’s no costume-drama pansy filmmaker. Wright’s a versatile, visual director with an eye for detail, and “Hanna” is the project that lets him show audiences what he’s really made of, outside the realm of corsets and courtesy.
But that script…it’s a problem. While “Hanna” is full of visual symbolism, the story has next to none; no greater concept, no moral (which, given its fairytale styling, is a bit disappointing). This would be fine if it told an exciting story with a cast of compelling characters, but it doesn’t really have that, either. It’s an odd conundrum, since a beefier script would have messed up the film’s coldly brilliant aesthetic, but in order for “Hanna” to fully work as a movie, the extra development is exactly what it needs. It feels skeletal.
“Hanna” is a very well-made movie. It’s flashy and well-constructed. The actors give effective performances, and there’s a good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor to match the onscreen action and tension. But it’s not a warm or full movie, by any means. The lack of character development or explanation of motivations beyond the bare necessities leaves audiences with a movie that looks fantastic, but feels hollow. As a result, “Hanna” is a movie that settles for being very good instead of aspiring toward greatness.
Posted by abby on April 6, 2011
Runtime: 98 minutes
Plot: An ex-gangster has betrayed his former “colleagues” and now lives in Spain where he thinks he can hide from their vengeance. Ten years later, two hit men show up and kidnap him under orders to escort him back to Paris where he’ll face execution. But it is a long way to Paris…
I love gangster movies, particularly British gangster movies. At their best, they’re complex pieces of work that have as much to do with class differences and character development as they do crazy car chases and guys with cockney accents named Terry. At their worst, they’re Guy Ritchie movies. So it was with great excitement that I picked up “The Hit,” a Stephen Frears movie about an informant who’s found and brought in for execution by his old boss. I was expecting a highbrow version of the usual stuff: hit men, gangsters, wild action, lots of violence.
I got most of that, but in a different package than I expected. It turns out that “The Hit” isn’t really a gangster movie at all, at least not by typical standards. It’s a movie about death that takes a zen-like approach to the subject. It hasn’t got the pulpy action of a movie like “The Long Good Friday,” but it still manages to be plenty tense. It’s a special kind of movie, the kind that still rattles around in your head the next day.
Terence Stamp plays Willie Parker, a former criminal-turned-informant hiding out in Spain after helping put his cohorts in jail. His old boss has just been released, and sends a hit man, Braddock (John Hurt) and his young punk of an apprentice, Myron (Tim Roth), to get Wille and bring him to Paris where he’ll be killed. Willie knows what’s happening the moment he’s abducted, but doesn’t seem bothered at all. He’s talkative; charming, even. He never attempts to escape, or delay his execution. He even repairs Braddock and Myron’s car after it breaks down. It all seems a bit odd. Is he trying to get the hit men to like him, so they won’t kill him later? Does he have a plan to escape that we don’t know about? What’s his game?
The movie is full of long, gorgeous shots of the Spanish countryside that radiate dust and heat, and the great soundtrack by Eric Clapton and flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia is brilliantly in tune with the action and location. But this is a Stephen Frears movie, which means we’re here for the performances, and boy does the cast deliver. Stamp is instantly likeable as Willie. He’s an intelligent, witty guy who makes for an intriguing character. But, good as he is, Roth and Hurt are the ones who really stand out—they’re the most dynamic characters in the piece, and both actors embody that depth and inner turmoil brilliantly.
Roth lends a surprising amount of sympathy to Myron, who first shows up looking like a manic little killing machine. But despite his initial thuggishness, it’s clear from how easily he connects to the other characters that Myron’s not the tough guy he thinks he is. As Roth plays him, Myron is a naïve young man who lacks direction. He’s got lots of energy; he just doesn’t know where to put it. Very impressive, considering it was his screen debut.
Alternatively, there’s John Hurt’s Braddock, a world-weary assassin who’s got the process down to a science. Hurt gives Braddock an exterior of cold efficiency (the description on Criterion’s website calls him “soulless”), but of all the characters, he’s the one who undergoes the biggest changes. He’s shaken up by Willie’s casual demeanor, and Hurt shows us how experiencing such a strange attitude towards death would effect a man who kills for a living.
“The Hit” takes viewers on a fascinating, conflicted ride through the minds of its characters. It takes a long and winding road, and ends the way it should, but not necessarily the way you’d think. Peter Prince’s cerebral script gives audiences a compelling story and shows compassion for characters you wouldn’t think it possible to show compassion for. “The Hit” wasn’t the movie I expected, but I’m glad. It was something much more unique, and an interesting addition to a genre that usually doesn’t take this much time to stop and think.
Posted by abby on February 27, 2011
Runtime: 94 minutes
Plot: Three teenagers confined to their parents’ isolated country estate and kept under strict rule and regimen – an inscrutable scenario that suggests a warped experiment in social conditioning and control.
“Dogtooth” (one of the nominees for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign film) is a weird little piece of world cinema, the likes of which appear only once in a very great while. It’s a beautifully shot, violent, shocking and absurd movie that owes fealty in equal measures to Michael Haneke and Luis Bunuel and Marcel Duchamp, with a touch of Jan Svankmajer thrown in for good measure. I know all those highfalutin comparisons make it sound like a heavy, dull movie, but it’s not. It’s just…unique.
The film lets us into the lives of a Greek family comprised of a father, mother, son and two daughters, who live in an isolated compound somewhere in the countryside. The father is the only one who leaves the house, driving to and from his work in the city. The only outsider who comes in is Christina, a security guard at the father’s office who’s brought in a couple of times a week to attend to the son’s sexual needs. The three unnamed children, all on the verge of adulthood, are raised with the strangest home schooling curriculum known to man. They listen to vocabulary tapes that spout misinformation (a “sea,” for example, is defined as a large leather chair), memorize anatomy books, and have daily workouts and games postured as contests to win “prizes” (stickers) that allow them special privileges.
Even stranger are the descriptions the father gives them about the outside world. The kids can never go out into the garden by themselves, or leave the walls of the compound, because cats might attack them—cats are evil. A child is ready to leave the home when their dogtooth (canine) falls out. They are ready to learn to drive when that tooth grows back.
It takes a while to get past the initial bizarre setup and figure out what writer and director Giorgos Lanthimos is up to here. But once the realization kicks in, “Dogtooth” becomes a smart, blackly funny satirical allegory about totalitarian rule. Think Franco’s Spain, China during the Cultural Revolution, or present-day North Korea. The father trains his family to bark like dogs, only allows them to watch family home movies for entertainment, and plays Frank Sinatra records at dinner, translating the lyrics out loud into messages that sound like they were copied directly from the Little Red Book.
There are plenty of places to get hung up on in this movie—it contains uncomfortable depictions of sex and incest, as well as bluntly graphic violence. But it’s all done with an interesting purpose in mind. Lanthimos sets out to depict an extreme example of totalitarianism, and the reactions that kind of strict leadership elicits from people, and he not only succeeds, but does so on an artistic scale that only a select few directors have achieved. I think Lanthimos probably needs to develop his artistic voice a little more (there are a great many parts of “Dogtooth” that feel pretty obvious and juvenile), but I have a feeling he’s going to be an interesting person to watch. This is his third film, and the only one that’s gotten any kind of international recognition. After the buzz from “Dogtooth,” I’m certain we’ll be hearing more from him.
Posted by abby on February 13, 2011
Runtime: 116 minutes
Plot: In 1941, playwright Barton Fink comes to Hollywood to write a wrestling picture. While in L.A., Barton develops severe writer’s block. His neighbor, a jovial insurance salesman, tries to help, but Barton continues to struggle as a bizarre sequence of events distracts him even further from his task.
“Barton Fink” is a Coen Brothers movie that doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie. It’s got the trademark dark humor and odd characters, and uses most of their regular cast members (Steve Buscemi, John Goodman and John Turturro, among a smattering of other noticeable Coen favorites) but in most other ways, it feels like someone else’s work. I kept thinking of David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch,” perhaps because of the similar aesthetic (but probably more so because both movies feature Judy Davis).
Barton Fink (Turturro) is an idealistic Arthur Miller-esque writer who wants to write theater for “the common man” in 1940s New York. At the beginning of the movie, his first play has opened to rave reviews. He’s the toast of the theater world. He receives an offer to write a screenplay for a Hollywood “boxing movie” for a nice fat sum, money that Barton’s agent assures him will allow him to keep writing all that “theater for the unwashed masses” stuff. So, Barton heads to L.A. where he’s put up in a past-its-prime hotel with a friendly neighbor (John Goodman), and is left to stew over his screenplay.
Perhaps the weirdest bit about “Barton Fink” is how unfocused it seems. At times, it feels like a commentary on the creative process and the mind of creative types. At others, it’s a satire of slick Hollywood businessmen and the sellout writers they hire to write their scripts. Barton is entrusted to write a script for a movie he knows nothing about, other than it’s a “boxing picture”, and encouraged by the studio head to write something with a “Barton Fink feeling,” although the head himself hasn’t read anything Barton’s written. There’s also a hard-drinking, depressive southern writer, W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), an obvious parody of Tennessee Williams, who hates himself for working in such a low-culture industry.
And every now and again, there are little touches of Cronenbergian surrealism—gooey peeling wallpaper that leaves trails of paste on the wall, a mosquito that keeps biting Barton, despite the studio bosses’ claims that there are no mosquitoes in L.A., sexual encounters ending in frightening ways. And then there’s Goodman, the talkative “common man” neighbor who Barton would rather talk at than listen to—a habit that leads to some nasty consequences in the film’s frown-inducingly bizarre conclusion. It’s all fairly interesting, but none of it seems to cohere. What’s the message? What does it all represent?
“Barton Fink” is an ambitious movie that tries to tackle a lot of concepts, and perhaps that’s why it falls short. It’s about highfalutin writers who claim a desire to write in a realistic voice, but who won’t even listen to the people they claim to represent. It’s about Hollywood head honchos who bring in creative talents to work on movies, but only do so because they see dollar signs. And it’s about writer’s block. These feel like they should be compatible ideas, but when you try to jam them together with a compelling plot, they come out looking a little like jumbled patchwork than a full picture. “Barton Fink” isn’t an awful movie, but it’s far from brilliant.
Posted by abby on January 5, 2011
Runtime: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Plot: Georges, a television talk show host, and his wife Anne, are living the perfect life of modern comfort and security. One day, their idyll is disrupted in the form of a mysterious videotape that appears on their doorstep.
I once heard someone say that walking blindly into a Michael Haneke movie was like walking blindly into an emotional meat grinder. At the time, I hadn’t seen any of the Austrian director’s movies, but was aware of his reputation for directing realistic, coldly dramatic films like “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon.” If you’re even vaguely familiar with Haneke’s usual subject matter, you know that cinematic portrayals of warmth and good times are not his strong suit by any means. So it was with growing interest (and a little trepidation) that I decided to watch the director’s 2005 film “Caché.”
It turns out that “Caché” actually is like walking into an emotional meat grinder. The thriller is two hours of anxiety, drawn-out suspense and camera trickery specifically designed with surgeon-like precision to make the audience uncomfortable. The film tells the story of Georges and Anne (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), an intellectual French couple with a 12-year-old son, who start receiving strange videotapes of the exterior of their house accompanied by creepy, threatening childlike drawings. The tapes and drawings particularly bother Georges, who sees connections to someone from his childhood who he’d rather forget.
Probably the most unsettling aspect of the film is Haneke’s use of the camera as an unreliable narrator. It’s difficult to tell in many scenes in “Caché,” especially in the film’s last half, whether what we’re watching is a simple exterior shot, or if it’s something that’s been shot by the anonymous stalker. Some scenes reappear shot from different angles, letting the audience know that what we thought was a private moment wasn’t really private at all. Once the viewer realizes they’re watching the work of the voyeur, the effect is chilling. I felt at once betrayed and like I was seeing something I shouldn’t be, a feeling that made me sympathize with Georges and Anne, the victims, all the more.
“Caché,” by the way, translates into English as “Hidden,” and it’s obvious that the way people hide guilt, uncomfortable emotions and uncomfortable memories is Haneke’s major theme. The mundane aspects of Georges and Anne’s life, their friends, their son, their work, contrast starkly to their actions and arguments when the tapes appear in their house. Haneke clothes most of his characters in dull neutral colors that subdue any kind of expression of their personalities. The only facts the audience knows about the characters are what they tell each other, which isn’t very much. Characters who seem nice at first look like total jerks later on. The message seems to be that everyone has secrets they hide that keep people from knowing them fully.
It would be easy to compare “Caché” to movies of the Alfred Hitchcock variety. It’s not entirely incorrect—there are some similarities. But where Hitchcock’s movies were exciting, charming and darkly fun, “Caché” is a movie tailor-made to keep audiences from enjoying it. Michael Haneke creates a situation where the stakes are high, and viewers spend the entire film waiting for the other shoe to drop, expecting danger in every corner, but never feeling relief when it doesn’t come. “Caché” is a movie that’s put together by someone who absolutely knows what they’re doing, and it’s great to see a director with such a clear and dedicated vision. But that vision ain’t pleasant.