Hanna (2011)

Hanna (2011) movie poster

director Joe Wright
viewed: 06/17/2015

Hanna is one of the few films that I’ve seen in recent years that just totally wowed me and became a personal favorite.  I do, year to year, make discoveries that sit with me, percolate and develop in my mind, even long after I’ve written on them and logged them, but it’s even more unusual for it to be a new film, and more unusual still, that it’s one that I wound up liking so unexpectedly.  But such is the case with Hanna, so much so that I was actually pretty keen to see it again.

Somewhere along the line, I started thinking it was a film my kids would like.  Rightly or wrongly, that occurred to me, but I did think it was still a bit old for them.  But now with the kids 11 and 13, I thought they could dig it and so I queued it up.

This second time through it, I don’t have a lot to add to what I wrote about it back in 2012, other than to say that it certainly has reaffirmed it as a growing personal favorite.  I still haven’t gotten around to watching any of director Joe Wright’s other films, but am anticipating and looking forward to his upcoming film, Pan (2015).

The kids enjoyed the film, but weren’t as into it as I had thought they might be.  I’m usually a little more hit than miss on things, but have been missing a bit more lately, maybe trying to open them up to more unusual or different things.  Who knows?

Anyhoo, I really like this movie.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) movie poster

director James Bobin
viewed: 03/30/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Ah, The Muppets.

I actually missed seeing The Muppets (2011), Disney’s rebirth of the Muppet franchise.  I guess I still have a soft spot for the Muppets overall.  I remember seeing The Muppet Movie (1979) in the theater as a 10 year old and laughing and laughing and laughing.  I guess that I’ve gotten a bit more cynical over the years, so I don’t know that I enjoy them quite at that level anymore, but like I said, I have a soft spot for them, right about…here.

The kids and I had been wanting to get to a movie for a while, actually missing a couple of movies that we could have seen (this being Little League season and time being at a premium.)  But Muppets Most Wanted was playing in West Portal, “the ‘hood,” if you will and so I pretty much willed us into this one.

This film, a follow-up of sorts to the last film, involves a Russian Kermit the Frog look-alike named Constantine, who is the “world’s most evil frog”.  He’s just like Kermit except for a mole on his lip and a very slow, overly pronounced approach to English.  He breaks out of the gulag and is teamed up with Ricky Gervais (who has become the Muppets’ new manager) to entrap Kermit, take his place, and do a lot of big heists.

Gervais’ character “Dominick Badguy” (“It’s pronounced ‘ba-jee'” he tells them in one of the film’s funnier jokes) is game, as is Tina Fey as a gulag warden.  There are lots of cameos, many truly brief, blink and you miss them.  And the film is pretty fun and entertaining.

The kids seemed to enjoy it.  And I liked it.  It’s well within the tradition that Jim Henson started, very much in the vein and vibe.

Disney has been acquiring assets like nobody’s business lately, promising new Star Wars movies every year, adding to their massive collection of their own characters and movies.  It was kind of strange seeing the Disney logo before the film and a Pixar short as well.  It’s just the promise of more and more and more the like.  A cache of rights to characters and properties that will no doubt be a bounty for decades to come, reinvention after reinvention, in perpetuity and perpetuity and perpetuity.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 03/16/2014 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the new Wes Anderson movie and it is indeed new and indeed a Wes Anderson movie.  Me, I really like his movies, so I get excited by such a prospect.  But even so, a Wes Anderson movie is a Wes Anderson movie, not really like anyone else’s films and if you didn’t care for Wes Anderson movies, chance is that you won’t like any Wes Anderson movies.

I was struck by how much a Wes Anderson movie is like a cinematic diorama.  A little world seen through perhaps a peephole, an elaborately detailed, perfectly wrought microcosm, operating almost like an automaton, wired perfectly to do its thing that it does.  In fact, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, as in a couple other of his films, Anderson uses miniatures for scenes of scale, to depict the complex totality of his universes in cross-sections.  It seemed like animation sort of opened this world up for him in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), but here he adds it to an overall aesthetic mixing artifice with location and scenery.

The other big thing of a Wes Anderson film is his hilarious, extremely particularlized characters.  He has his group of actors that appear consistently in his films and many are here as well, playing almost cartoonish creations each of whom is “ever so” him or herself.  Again, to some, this could be a criticism, to others, it’s just wonderful fun.

The stars of Grand Budapest are Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori.  Fiennes is M. Gustave H., concierge at the titular hotel, a perfectionist of meeting every need any hotel guest should have, and also an avid lover of aged women who visit the hotel.  Revolori is the young Zero Moustafa, lobby boy in training under M. Gustave H.  It is Zero’s story being told, after all, in flashback by F. Murray Abraham, the aged Zero, relating the story to a young writer, Jude Law, who is in turn a flashback for the established writer played by Tom Wilkinson.  It’s a bit like the stacked babushka dolls, the packaging and telling of the story, miniature within a miniature, artifice within artifice.

Felix was actually keen to see this movie, which pleasantly surprised me.  Both of the kids love Fantastic Mr. Fox and were both kind of warm to Moonrise Kingdom (2012), though I guess it grew on Felix in retrospect.  I’m not entirely sure what he thought of Grand Budapest in the end.  He seemed to like it fairly well.

I do like Wes Anderson films.  I guess my favorites being Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and with The Darjeeling Limited (2007) at the bottom of the scale.  I’d read some assessments of Grand Budapest that placed it as his best work.  I don’t know.  I still like the ones I do, but I did enjoy it quite well.  Fiennes is perfect as the impeccable M. Gustave H.

The film is a fantasy of a Europe that only possibly ever existed in anyone’s imagination and Anderson plays that well.  All of his worlds are perfected fantasies, wonderfully detailed, ornate, nearly sublime.

I’ve had a nagging question though in my mind about Anderson’s very WASPy universes.  There are Indians often, and Zero, as played by Revolori is of undetermined Mediterranean background.  I was struck by this in Moonrise Kingdom and see it here again, too.  It’s not that I think that movies should be meeting quotas of ethnic diversity or anything, but I do wonder about these wondrous fantasy worlds and why they so often seem so white.

Byzantium (2012)

Byzantium (2012) movie poster

director Neil Jordan
viewed: 03/12/2014

In this day and age, if you want to make a vampire movie and you don’t want it to be derivative, you’re best off not making a vampire movie.  Vampires have gone from the odd depths of horror to straight-up mainstream popular genre.  And the sheer numbers of vampire books, shows, movies, it’s become a more and more pedestrian affair.  Their ubiquity has led to such a watered-down and multi-modified series of permutations of the vampire legend that each little universe has come to define the “rules” of being a vampire.

Sunlight?  Mirrors? Being asked indoors? Fangs?  Sparkling in sunlight?

All this said, I guess that I was oddly cynical to queue up a vampire movie, even one by a director like Neil Jordan who I have liked quite a bit in the past, but probably held moderately low hopes for in this film that came a went rather quickly.  The film does however star both Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, two beguiling actresses.  And I felt like I could use a less heady film for the moment.

But surprisingly, Jordan does not disappoint.  If anything, if this movie had been made during a dearth of vampire stories rather than the spate that we are in, it might well have garnered more and better attention.  I suppose it’s not unique enough to stand out from a crowded shelf on looks alone.  But it is indeed a richer, more interesting, and moving motion picture than I anticipated.

Adapted for the screen by playwright Moira Buffini from her own work, it’s the story of a mother and daughter pair of vampires who have eked out an existence for 200 years.  Though mother and daughter, they pass themselves as sisters, Arterton the elder in her early 20’s, Ronan her daughter trapped at the age of 16.  Their story unfolds as they flee to a small English seaside village, running from their past and some mysterious hunters.

Arterton’s Clara has earned their living as a prostitute (for all 200 years), and has been eternally protective of her far more innocent daughter.  But this is the time and place that everything comes out, a return to the place that it all began, the same seaside from all those years before.

And interestingly, the vampire mythos on display here are Irish-oriented, involving a cave and an unnamed power, an isolated island, birds, and blood.  Why they need to be asked in to a dwelling?  Sort of arbitrary.  They don’t have fangs.  They can’t “turn” one another.  Again, all this quibbling over the specifics of the take on the vampire concept.

But I actually did like it.  Arterton I’ve found lovely since I first set eyes on her a few years back in Clash of the Titans (2010).  Saoirse Ronan has struck me from trailers and movie posters since she came on the scene.  Really the first thing I saw her in I suppose was Hanna (2010), which was also very surprising and good.  It’s one of the natures of movies, beautiful young actresses, personas, riveting attention.  I like them both.

And for Neil Jordan, the Irish director of A Company of Wolves (1984), Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Butcher Boy (1997) (a personal favorite), he has proven himself to me yet again that he’s got more substance than so many.  He works here with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt who has made his name working with Steve McQueen on his films, paints a lovely world here, the decaying English seaside and its rugged coast.

Really, quite a good film.

Hanna

Hanna (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Joe Wright
viewed: 10/09/2011

I’d never seen any of director Joe Wright’s previous films, Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), or The Soloist (2009).  They sounded like lush literary adaptations or other Oscar fodder that never piqued my interest, and while they got good enough reviews, they weren’t about visionary film-making.  While from the trailers, Hanna looked quite different, not just in subject matter but style, I did kind of take into account that this was not a film by Luc Besson or Tom Twyker but by an somewhat undistinguished, though successful director seeming looking for something a little more radical.

The film opens in the isolated outreaches of the Arctic or sub-Arctic, in which a striking young girl with limpid blue eyes, hunts and kills a large deer or elk with a bow and arrow.  She hits it and then chases it until it collapses, and when she catches up with it, she tells it, “I just missed your heart,” and seemingly apologizes with a Luger-shot in the head.  Clearly not your average teenager.

She lives with her father (Eric Bana), who has trained her for a life of killing in this isolated place, elucidating facts of the world, fairy tales, and 1,000 ways to slay a foe with whatever is handy.  Their relationship is not so unlike that of Hit Girl and Big Daddy of last year’s Kick-Ass (2010), though with quite a bit of the humor and irony removed.  Still, these two girls could well get along.

Questions abound throughout the opening of the film, not unlike The Bourne Identity (2002) in a sense.  We’re not given all of the story elements to work with and that gives the narrative a good edge, not really having a sense of which way it will veer or what the real history between these two and CIA operative Cate Blanchett (who I usually really like except when she’s using this really bad Southern accent).  Blanchett is the baddie and that’s not too hard to figure out.  But their globe-trotting, winding paths that lead them to meet up in an abandoned amusement park (a terrific setting, Spreepark), will ultimately end up with some dead bodies.

The girl is the luminous Saoirse Ronan, who came to the fore in Wright’s Atonement.  She is so blond, so pale, so blue-eyed, that she appears onscreen like some apparition, like a fairy from another world, which well fits her character, this lovely young girl who only at some teenage year enters the real world.  She’s a compelling screen presence and a good character.

Wright pumps the film with music by the Chemical Brothers, giving a pulsing, uber-beat that keeps the energy moving throughout.  Maybe that is what brought by to mind of Tom Twyker and Run Lola Run (1998).  The film’s style is more “European” or “avant-garde”, both terms which I use with parentheses because that is how it feels, not such a clear description.  This is clearly not another Jane Austen film.  It’s about, as I heard someone say, “a girl who kicks ass”.

Despite a couple of more conventional moments of lighter humor, meant perhaps to brighten or deepen the spectrum of emotion in the film, it’s a pretty constant up and running thriller.  And you can see that it yearns to be the likes of someone different.  It’s easy to imagine Luc Besson sitting there, going “Wow, great movie!”  It’s been a long time since Besson made a film as good as this.  But he’d love the story and the character and the action.

Actually, I liked it quite well, perhaps a little despite myself and my preconceptions about Joe Wright.  Ronan is so striking, and the character is quite compelling, no matter how derivative the whole of the story might be from some perspectives.  She definitely kicks ass.  And the film pretty much kicks ass.  And no, I’m not calling for Hanna Meets Hit Girl.  But they should do lunch.