Film review – Hanna (2011)

19 July 2011
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan)

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan)

A dark modern fairy tale crossed with an international spy thriller, Hanna is an exhilarating film that draws on a range of cultural anxieties surrounding children. The films titular character Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) is both an innocent experiencing the world for the first time and a highly efficient killer, trained since she was a child in isolation in Northern Finland by her ex-CIA father Erik (Eric Bana). On the run from the ruthless intelligence agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), Hanna is something of a helpless babe in the woods encountering civilisation, social interactions and sexuality for the first time. However, she’s also part of the cinematic tradition of monstrous children where her outward appearance of innocence and youth makes her murderous abilities so much more disturbing

At first glance Hanna may seem like a similar character to Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, but while the characters have a similar background the films are stylistically and thematically very different. With its bold production design, thunder electronic soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers and overall hyper-real tonality, Hanna feels directly inspired by the 1990s European classics Nikita and Run Lola Run.

Hanna: Marissa (Cate Blanchett)

Marissa (Cate Blanchett)

Director Joe Wright may be best known for period films Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (he also did The Soloist), but his films have always displayed a remarkable grasp of how to best engage the audience visually. In particular, Wright is quickly becoming an expert in the use of extended uninterrupted long takes, to give scenes an enhanced real-time sense of drama and tension. Wright’s mastery of this challenging cinematic technique was evident in the spectacular Dunkirk beach scene in Atonement and once again during several key moments in Hanna.

In contrast to the long take scenes are the sequences where Wright gets the pulse racing with his very engaging rhythmic editing. The scene with Hanna running through the tunnel system in a large underground bunker combines pulsating music, quick edits and low lit architecture consisting of mostly geometric shapes to give the sequence a weird aesthetic as if it were an modern art installation filmed like a music video. The action in Hanna is unconventional, unpredictable and even a little eerie since at the centre of it all is not Jason Bourne but a young girl who at times resembles a haunted child from a late 1990s Japanese horror film. With popular cinema so saturated in action-based spectacle, making action look so breathtakingly fresh and original is a significant achievement.

Hanna: Erik (Eric Bana)

Erik (Eric Bana)

The increasingly garish and surreal use of settings wonderfully expresses the film’s perversion of childhood in a similar way that the nightmarish fun park at the climax of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai indicates the breakdown of logic and rationality for that film’s protagonist. In Hanna many aspects of the film are similarly overtly stylised and exaggerated to convey Hanna’s point-of-view as somebody encountering a world that she’d previously only learned about through reading Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Saoirse Ronan is superb at ensuring Hanna evokes a balance of sympathy and uncanny unease from the audience. Bana gives an effective low-key and oddly sweet performance as her taskmaster father while as the film’s villain Blanchett is gloriously over-the-top. The image of Blanchett emerging from the mouth of a giant wolf is completely unsubtle and obvious, yet it perfectly suits the tone of the film to deliver one of the most memorable singular cinematic images from the past few years. It’s the final touch to what makes Hanna such an extraordinarily visceral and subjective film, brilliantly straddling the divide between art-house and action cinema.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Funny People (2009)

12 September 2009
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and Ira Wright (Seth Rogan)

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and Ira Wright (Seth Rogan)

Judd Apatow has been writing, directing and producing most of the big comedies to have hit the big screen over the past five years. The guy knows humour and his previous two directorial efforts, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are two of the funniest films of recent years. Funny People is the third film that Apatow has directed, written and produced and it is a very self-reflexive look at the business of creating comedy. Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a wealthy comedy mega-star with a background in stand-up and a string of mediocre films to his name that somehow haven’t diluted his popularity. In other words, George is a version of Sandler (although a far more egotistical, unpleasant and chauvinistic version since by most accounts the real Adam Sandler is actually a very generous person). George is dying of a rare form of leukaemia, something that he only confides to his new assistant and joke writer Ira Wright (Apatow regular Seth Rogen), an aspiring comedian. Through Ira’s suggestion George gets back in touch with his family and friends, which includes ex-fiancé Laura (Leslie Mann) who now has a family of her own.

The key to enjoying Funny People is to first accept that it is not a comedy but a drama about people who work in comedy. There are funny moments but for the most part Funny People reflects many of Robert Altman’s films with its combination of multiple cameos, improvised dialogue and cynicism about the industry of making people laugh. The characters are not typical Apatow characters either as they aren’t really that likeable. What made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up such enjoyable films is that despite all their arrested adolescent behaviour and flaws, the characters were all decent guys with good intentions. Not so with Funny People: George is rude, narcissistic and callous; Ira screws over his best friend Leo (Jonah Hill); and Leo and Ira’s other housemate Mark (Jason Schwartzman) are overly competitive about making it in the comedy world.

Clarke (Eric Bana) and Laura (Leslie Mann)

Clarke (Eric Bana) and Laura (Leslie Mann)

The first section of Funny People is actually hard going because the characters are so dislikeable. The endless cameos by real life comedians playing themselves never really successfully lighten the mood either although there is one very funny scene where Eminem and Ray Romano have an altercation. Funny People picks up significantly when it begins to focus on the dynamic between George and Laura, mainly because Leslie Mann is just so terrific as Laura. It is also during these scenes that Sandler really gets to demonstrate how good he can be as a dramatic actor. The presence of Eric Bana as Laura’s obnoxious Alpha-male husband also helps to liven up these scenes. Funny People is not as good as the other films directed by Apatow and it probably would have worked better if the fairly weighty material was in the hands of a more seasoned director. Nevertheless, this is a very good film providing that you are prepared for its long running time and you aren’t expecting it to be a laugh riot.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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