Hanna (2011)

Still from Hanna

I had a similar reaction to this movie as I had to the other Joe Wright movie I’ve seen, Atonement (2007). The production design was great, the cast was great, the set-up was great (and the trailer did a great job of selling all these), but the actual story, characters, and flow of the film left me dissatisfied. I wasn’t sure exactly why, so I’ve been thinking about it. However, when you go looking for reasons why you didn’t care for a movie, it’s easy enough to find flaws that you would look over in movies that swept you up. Maybe I’m just out of synch with Wright’s sensibility.

As I say, I thought the set-up was good, as we learn that an ex-intelligence agent (Eric Bana) has taken his young daughter (the eerie-looking Saoirse Ronan) to a remote forest and trained her to be a killing machine. Her first action set-piece (after initial sparring with dad) is very effective, although there were elements of it I had problems with. But it’s when she makes contact with a family of kooky Brits on vacation that my doubts about how the fight scenes were constructed began to seep out into how the whole thing was constructed.

I think the central problem is the character of Hanna herself. In that first major action set-piece we see an unstoppable ninja in action. It’s very exciting. However, in her next major action setpiece, not only is she stoppable, but she actually runs away. This would be something if her opponents were made out to be superior fighters, but they’re not. Suddenly her character is vastly diminished, and she spends the rest of the movie running away. She regains her mojo in the very final scene, but by then it’s too late.

Another major problem I had with the movie, which I did mumble about to my friend Luke as we ate sushi afterwards, was the kooky family. (Who I wanted to love, because I love Olivia Williams, who played the kooky mom.) To me the whole episode with them ended up being meaningless. They are tossed aside and never heard of again, and Hanna never thinks of them again. Well, she’s a killing machine with no feelings, right? Except that we see her reacting emotionally to other things in the final act, and it seemed that the whole point of the kooky family was to give Hanna a taste of real humanity. On the other hand, the kooky daughter does provide a friendship bracelet that plays in important part later, so maybe there’s more going on here than I noticed the first time through.

There’s an attempt to cast the story as a fairy tale, with the wonderfully-ominous Cate Blanchett as the evil witch, for example. But the fairy tale aspects seemed a bad match to some of the thriller plot elements, so that (as Luke pointed out) Blanchett’s hatred of children (which you’d expect in a fairy tale witch) is rationalized as the regrets of a woman who chose profession over family. This feels retrograde and too obvious. Why rationalize it at all? She’s a witch! Then there are scenes like the one where Hanna escapes from an underground holding facility. This is shot and cut very poetically to suggest a fairy tale labyrinth in which Hanna has become lost. Problem is, where are the bread crumbs? Where’s Ariadne’s string? We do not see how Hanna finds her way out; it’s just a given. It feels like a cheat. I needed to see more of her cleverness, more of her super abilities.

Which is the problem I had with the fight scenes, too. Except for the final confrontation, which is well done, most of the fight scenes fail to develop Hanna (or her opponents) as a character. They’re just the usual modern blur of confusing action. No sense of strategy, no sense of decisions, craft, or technique. I would contrast this with the fight scenes in a similar Luc Besson film such as La Femme Nikita (1990) or those I saw just the other day in Gamer (2009), where the flow of action from character is clear.

Some are calling this an art house action film, and maybe I just didn’t get in tune with its arty rhythms. I’ll try it again on DVD at some point. I’ve focused on my complaints, but there was actually much I liked, including Hanna’s backstory. Some of the fish-out-of-water humor was very good too. The cast is great. The opening and finale are both strong. Maybe I’m just looking for trouble. Or maybe a better movie could be made from these elements.

Still from Hanna

Gamer (2009)

Screencap from Gamer

Gamer is an exploitation film, with all the tits and ass and blood and guts and politically incorrect humor that sniggering adolescent boys the world over love so much. It’s also one of the smartest science fiction films I’ve seen in the past five years. Steven Shaviro has written an epic, Theory-laden analysis of the film, and I’m not even going to try to compete with the genius of it. Instead I’m going to steal some of his analysis, add a bunch of screen caps, and throw in a few comparisons to other movies.

(Enter the game and find yourself already in it … )

The Docks of New York (1928)

‘That same year, 1928, Sternberg turned out the pictorially remarkable Docks of New York, which earned the praise of George Bernard Shaw. In it George Bancroft (who had become a favorite actor of Sternberg since Underworld, appearing in four of his films) moved with the grace of a ballet dancer, despite his heavy bulk, so integrated were his movements. Out of an imagination and sense of fantasy as vivid and evocative as Thomas Burke’s evocations of London’s Soho and Whitechapel in Limehouse Nights (and in an instinctive echo of the ancient Greeks who ordained that “every man owes five days a year to Dionysus”?), Sternberg conjured up a section of the Hoboken waterfront in the studio, complete with dirty tramp steamer tied up to the dock, its smoke-filled saloons with their wooden staircases outside leading to the upstairs rooms of the cheap prostitutes, the steaming boiler-room in the ship’s hold with the glistening bodies of the stokers manning the fire-ovens, the sweating faces of those laboring in front of red-hot coal and looking forward to shore leave, which meant cold beer and the soft, yielding arms of the saloon girls … all rendered in photography of the richest chiaroscuro.’

–Herman G. Weinberg, Josef von Sternberg (E.P Dutton & Co, 1967)

Screencap from The Docks of New YorkScreencap from The Docks of New YorkScreencap from The Docks of New YorkScreencap from The Docks of New York

(Stoking romance …)

Underworld (1927)

‘Wrote Hecht in his autobiography, A Child of the Century: “I made up a movie about a Chicago gunman and his moll, called Feathers McCoy. As a newspaperman, I had learned that nice people — the audience — loved criminals, doted on reading about their love problems as well as their sadism. My movie, grounded on this simple truth, was produced with the title, Underworld. It was the first gangster movie to bedazzle the movie fans and there were no lies in it — except for a half-dozen sentimental touches introduced by its director, Jo von Sternberg.” Sternberg admits that Hecht was not pleased with the picture and asked that his name be taken off the screen. Yet when the first Academy Awards presentations was made for 1927-28, it was Ben Hecht who won the writing “Oscar” for the “Best Original Screen Story.” The film went on to become an enormous box-office success, for which Paramount gave Sternberg a $10,000 bonus.’

— Herman G. Weinberg, Josef von Sternberg (E.P. Dutton & Co, 1967)

Screencap from Underworld

(Come on. Let’s drift.)

Limitless (2011)

Still from Limitless

Limitless is a wish-fulfillment film fantasy about a drug that makes you a super-genius. The concept has previously been explored in science fiction stories such as Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” (1958, filmed as Charly in 1968) and Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968). In all of these stories, one of the biggest challenges is to create a convincing portrait of a super-genius — a challenge that Keyes and Disch took head-on by writing their stories in the first person from the point of view of the guy becoming the genius. On the surface, Limitless is a much glitzier, much more superficial approach to the concept, yet it does a great job at this essential task. It sells the idea that Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is smarter than anybody else in the room while he’s on the drug NZT.

Well, you do have to swallow some B.S. to get to that belief. Part of the expository explanation of how NZT works evokes the old myth that we only use a small part of our potential brain power. (Traditionally it’s said to be ten percent, but the movie doubles that.) This is nonsense, but if you can set that aside, the actual portrayal of how Eddie’s mind works when it’s on fire is very good. In fact, if the exposition had been that NZT improves your memory it would have made more sense, because that’s the core of Eddie’s improved intelligence: he can remember everything that’s strayed even on the fringes of his awareness, and he can connect the dots. “Pattern recognition,” as one of the characters puts it, which may well have been a shout out to William Gibson’s novel of the same name.

In any event, aside from selling the genius, the movie’s other strong hand is visual style and sheer momentum. There’s a recurring motif of the camera traveling straight ahead in an apparently endless zoom, which gives us a vertiginous sense of motion through an infinite (limitless!) space. This is the objective correlative of Eddie’s new-found mental powers. It gives us a visceral, disorienting sense of the rush of being the smartest guy in the room, of traveling very rapidly much further than we’ve ever been before.

The movie is a lot of fun. It’s playful, it’s funny, it’s exciting — it zooms along. Eddie hits a number of obstacles on his rising path, but he always seems to find the solution. Yet this kind of story can’t end well, can it? It opens up with Eddie standing on the precipice, ready to hurl himself to his death as killers try to break down his high rise apartment door. There’s an pervasive sense throughout the first two acts that Eddie is pursuing an empty goal, an impossible dream. His girlfriend (the smart, gorgeous Abbie Cornish) warns him against hubris. And Eddie’s pursuit of success takes him into the world of speculative finance, which these days can’t help but make us think of the Wall Street whiz kids who drove our country — and the whole damned world — into an economic abyss. Eddie is an endearingly bohemian screw-up as the film begins, but as he gets smarter he becomes more of a soulless yuppie who is only interested in greater and greater success.

This may be the secret genius of the film. I’m still not completely certain how to read the ending, which was not at all the ending I was expecting. The question is whether this is ultimately a satire. If I put myself in Abbie Cornish’s shoes in the final scene, I’ve got to think I’d be feeling ambivalent at best. I’d probably be feeling scared witless. Although this does bring up one of the film’s weaknesses, which is Robert De Niro’s merciless tycoon, Carl Von Loon. The name is an obvious jibe at the super rich, but the character actually needs to be more menacing and vicious, I think, for the final confrontation between Von Loon and Eddie to pay off. It’s still a pretty good scene, but it could have been more powerful.

As I walked out of the theater I thought I’d just seen a very slick, stylish entertainment. The more I think about it, however, the more I think it actually has a moral ambiguity at the heart of it that’s a pretty sharp comment on the USA today. The Wall Street bright boys are still running the country. Do they really have no limits?

Still from Limitless

Monsters (2010)

Alien life has infected Mexico. Two Americans — a photographer and the daughter of a media mogul — are trying to find their way north to the border and over the containment wall.

This film has gotten quite a divided reaction, and I’m not sure why. Is it because it mashes romance with science fiction? Is it too twee? The romance is perhaps not as keen as the best romances, but there’s something interesting going on in the conversation between the romantic and the science fictional ideas, and the conversation is mostly non-verbal. Love is the plan, the plan is death, right? Or am I over-interpreting the final scenes? Mating behavior …

I’m not sure why Gareth Edwards decided to shoot this as a jungle movie when it supposedly takes place in Mexico near the U.S. border. It was actually mostly shot in Belize, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Whatever the case of nonsensical geography (and ethnography, with a Mayan temple right by the border), the Mexican setting reminded me of another recent low-budget SF film, Sleep Dealer. The wall along the border takes on a new practical meaning here, but both films use it as a metaphor for the U.S.’s futile attempts to deny it has a cousin to the south. The love that dare not speak its name?

I guess if people went into this thinking that as a science fiction movie it would be heavy on the special effects, they might find it visually thin, but I thought it was quite beautiful. One for those who want a little less bombast in their science fiction.

Screen cap from MonstersScreen cap from MonstersScreen cap from Monsters

Southland Tales (2006)

I was inspired to watch this on Netflix Instant after watching Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer (2009) the same way. (I hope to write more about Gamer once I’ve watched it again.) I’d previously seen Southland Tales during its brief theatrical release, and I ended up agreeing with the critics who called it an ambitious mess. I really wanted to like it, because I’d really liked Richard Kelly’s first film, Donnie Darko (2001), and because this was a high concept science fiction film with a great cast. I was hoping that it was just too high concept for most critics to grok. However, a second viewing confirms my initial feeling that it really doesn’t hold together. It’s an ambitious mess, and Gamer is a far better (although also far crasser) movie covering similar territory.

I did like Southland Tales better the second time through, and I’m still willing to be convinced that it’s such a complex film that it takes multiple viewings for the likes of me to understand how it works. There are lots of great bits to it — the porn star chat show, the Marxist performance art terrorists, the speculative energy source and dimensional rift, the satire of the PATRIOT Act, the specter of endless war in Iraq, Pilot Abilene’s question mark scar, Bai Ling — but what I came away feeling this time is that it has no rhythm. All of these interesting elements fail to spark off each other, and it feels sludgy and static. There’s too much voice-over exposition trying to guide us through the muddy thicket of ideas.

It occurred to me this morning that one comparable movie is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). It has a similarly large, sprawling cast of characters and recomplicated plot, similar depth of backstory and rapid-fire incluing of multiple science fictional ideas, and yet it’s a much more sprightly movie. Maybe it’s because Buckaroo Banzai is more of a comedy and isn’t trying for the transcendent finale, although it certainly shifts gears into serious romance and even melodrama at times. Maybe the editing is just better, or the wit finer, I’m not sure. Southland Tales is very funny at times, very absurd, but there are other times when the absurd moments seem to just miss the mark, just miss the right timing or the telling connection.

There’s still a lot I don’t understand about the story. I still have a lot of questions. I don’t understand the whole doubling aspect. Are characters from this alternate history meeting their doppelgangers from our own reality? (The movie is set in a 2008 in which Dubya is president and we’re at war in Iraq but many details of the world are different from our own. There has been a terrorist nuclear strike in Texas, for instance.) Why is Pilot Abilene the narrator? What’s his connection with Ronald/Roland Taverner?

It’s a high concept movie, and perhaps its pleasures are more intellectual than purely cinematic. Maybe if I read the comic books that tell earlier parts of the story I’d understand more of what’s going on in the film. At this point it still feels like a failed experiment, but the challenge of it — and the good bits — may keep bringing me back.

Something deeper than reason: Canyon Passage (1946)

I’m not sure why this Jacques Tourneur Western isn’t better known. I first saw it in May 2007 in a grab bag DVD collection, Classic Western Round-Up Volume 1, and it immediately struck me as one of the most original movies about frontier America that I’d ever seen. As should be clear by now, I’m a huge fan of Tourneur, and this is certainly one of his greatest films. Tourneur may only be known to film freaks, but even amongst the film freaks he is better known for his film noir and horror films. Is it just that Canyon Passage has been so difficult to see? Or is it that Tourneur’s elusiveness and the Western genre are an odd couple, leaving fans of his thrillers and fans of Westerns equally at a loss?

Screen cap from Canyon PassageScreen cap from Canyon PassageScreen cap from Canyon PassageScreen cap from Canyon Passage

(You’re talking in riddles, Logan. What’s in your mind?)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Screen cap from I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie is a variation on Jane Eyre, so it seemed fitting to visit it again in the aftermath of seeing the new adaptation of Jane Eyre. A Canadian nurse is assigned to care for the sick wife of a plantation owner on a West Indies island. She discovers that the wife is mentally ill, and some think the wife has been turned into a zombie.

The fact that the nurse is Canadian has an unstated significance in the racial scheme of the film, which is an unusual one for a Hollywood movie of this era. There are several levels of historical transgression buried on the West Indies isle, but the original sin is the sin of slavery. The nurse is innocent of that crime of the forefathers, coming from a country that never practiced slavery. One of the remarkable things about I Walked with a Zombie is the degree to which the black characters are given a voice and an autonomy, even if none of them has a starring role. This was a rarity in the Hollywood of the Jim Crow era. Perhaps the fact that producer-writer Val Lewton was Russian and director Jacques Tourneur was French made them more comfortable dealing directly with the dark side of American history.

(You’ll find superstition a contagious thing.)