Monday, June 27, 2011


I really did not see this coming from director Joe Wright.  Whoever would have thought that the director of such intense and emotional period films as “Pride & Prejudice” and the amazing “Atonement”, would try his hand at a modern action film?  I certainly wouldn’t have, but I am glad that he did because “Hanna” is a fantastic and intelligent addition to the genre.

The film is often described as a mixture of “Leon”, “Run Lola Run” and the “Bourne” films, and while these titles are all apt in descriptive terms, “Hanna” has its own identity entirely.  Growing up in the woods somewhere below the Arctic Circle, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has been brought up by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), with one purpose in mind.  He has been training her since birth to become the ultimate assassin, so when she is ready and of age she can set out to hunt down and kill Marissa Vagler (Cate Blanchett).  Marissa is a CIA agent that Erik used to work with on a top secret experiment with the goal to turn kids into assassins for the use of the government.  When the project gets shut down for being immoral, Erik flees with Hanna, knowing she will be killed as she is the last remaining evidence of their guilty and shameful little project.  At the start of the film we see that Hanna is convinced that she is ready, and she sets off a beacon device that will alert Marissa to exactly where she is.  When the CIA bring Hanna in (minus Erik, who “escaped” capture), the first thing she does is ask to speak to Marissa.  Knowing something may be up, Marissa sends down a lookalike to speak to Hanna.  Hanna begins asking her specific questions about her dad that only Marissa would know the answers to, in an attempt to confirm Marissa’s identity.  What Hanna doesn’t realize is that the real Marissa is feeding her imposter the correct answers via an earpiece.  After all the questions have been answered correctly, Hanna is sure she has found her target, and immediately pounces, killing the woman instantly.  She then goes about escaping the room she is in, by killing the guards protecting the door, and then heads about escaping the entire compound.  Marissa is stunned and taken aback by the brutality she has just witnessed, and realizes that she is in a kill-or-be-killed situation.  Eventually Hanna does escape but when she surfaces from the underground compound she suddenly realizes that she is actually in Morocco.  How is she going to make it back to her dad at the rendezvous point in Germany with the CIA on her tail trying to track her down and capture her, and worse, with Marissa covertly trying to have her assassinated?

This film could have been just your normal run-of-the-mill action movie, but in the hands of Joe Wright, he has created something much more unique and special, with some considerable depth.  The film is actually quite a surreal piece and it is framed like a fairy tale.  In fact a number of fairy tales are referenced throughout the film and the finale takes place at an amusement park dedicated to the works of the Grimm Brothers.

Saoirse Ronan is fantastic in the lead role of Hanna, where she succeeds in pulling off the sensitivity of the emotional scenes along with the physicality of the action scenes, and importantly she is believable in both.  Joe Wright’s image of this sixteen year old assassin is a strange one because he has gotten Saoirse to dye her hair and her eyebrows very blonde (almost white), so she actually looks quite alien, which I suppose helps visualize the whole “fish-out-of-water” scenario that Hanna finds herself in (I suppose in a practical sense it also helps camouflage Hanna when she is hunting for food in the snow, as we see at the beginning of the film).  The role of Hanna is quite a tough one because she initially starts the film as an emotionless, almost robotic assassin determined to execute the mission she has been put on the earth to fulfill.  However as she starts to come into more and more contact with other people, and even makes a friend, she begins to warm up and feel emotions that she never knew existed, while at the same time still having the ability to snap back into assassin mode when it is called for.  As I’ve just mentioned, Saoirse is great, and along with the two Fanning sisters, I think she is probably the best young actress going around these days.  Her work is always of such a high standard and she has got incredible taste in the movie roles she chooses.

The rest of the cast are pretty good as well, with Eric Bana putting in a strong performance as Hanna’s dad, and there is some nice work from both Olivia Williams and Jason Fleming who play the parents of a family Hanna befriends.  Olivia Williams especially is great in her role as a carefree, almost new-age type mother.  One of the flaws of “Hanna” though is the performance of Jessica Barden as Sophie, the first friend Hanna ever makes.  She just seems all wrong and appears far too young for the role she is portraying.  She looks and sounds like a twelve year old, but she is meant to be around sixteen, and unfortunately her whole performance grated on me.  This now brings me to the strange performance from Cate Blanchett.  As you may know, I rate Blanchett very highly and she is definitely one of my favourite actresses, but her role as Marissa is not one of her best.  I’m not sure if this is deliberate (and I certainly hope that it is) but there are times when Marissa speaks with a thick Southern accent and other times when there is barely a trace of it at all.  It is definitely strange, but the only thing I can think of is that she plays different variations of herself depending on the company she is keeping.  Other than that, her performance is pretty good, and she displays a strong intensity needed to play the villain of this piece.

Being a film directed by Joe Wright, you know that visually it will be spectacular.  I must admit that I was initially worried about this because soon after the film was announced it was revealed that Wright wouldn’t be working with his regular cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (who had lensed all of Wright’s previous features) on this project.  However I never had anything to worry about because Alwin H. Kuchler equips himself well with the cinematography duties he performed on “Hanna”.  What also helps is that Wright has continued his working relationship with his amazing production designer, Sarah Greenwood.  Her work is always inventive and stunning, and along with Kuchler’s photography, they have created a very bizarre and surreal world for Hanna to inhabit.  It really fits in with and enhances the fairy tale theme throughout.

Another trademark of a Joe Wright film is the complicated long shots that he likes to add, usually once or twice a film, and in this regard “Hanna” is no exception.  The shot in question begins with Erik getting off a bus at a station.  He starts his walk and it isn’t long before he realizes that there are a number of men waiting for him.  The camera continues to follow Erik along his journey while weaving in and out of pylons exposing the hiding places of the CIA agents.  Erik and the camera continue down an escalator until they reach an area that is civilian free.  The camera continues to roam while Erik is stationary and it is soon revealed to us that he is surrounded.  The agents close in on him and Erik attacks and still all in one single shot, he disables all of the agents and escapes.  At almost exactly three minutes in length, it is such an impressive shot and is an amazing technical achievement.  If I was to be slightly critical, I think that the shot should have ended when we see Erik surrounded, with the fight scene itself being comprised of a number of carefully edited shots, because personally I feel that the fight suffers a little bit and is not as powerful as it could have been, within the confines of the single shot.  It just lacks the required power, although I understand that Wright wanted us to feel as if we were in the moment with Erik, and I am fine with that (it really is such a minor complaint).

Overall though, Joe Wright has confounded expectations and delivered a superb action film with “Hanna”.  Importantly he hasn’t fallen into the trap of filming his action scenes with “shaky cam” and instead he relies on beautifully composed shots making all of the action very easy to understand just what is going on.  Although the film is not perfect (the strange group of misfits that Marissa hires to hunt down Hanna are just odd), it is always entertaining and intelligent.  As usual it is very strong visually, and with a strong performance from Saoirse Ronan in the title role, “Hanna” is definitely a film I can recommend to everyone and I look forward to watching it again soon.  With his next film, Joe Wright is returning to comfortable ground with an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” (which also sees him reteaming with Keira Knightley).  After that film I hope that he makes the live action version of “The Little Mermaid” (which he was once attached to, but little has been mentioned of it recently), and if so, I hope he sticks close to the original fairy tale with its very dark and shocking ending – it would be amazing.  Until then, though, at least we have “Hanna” to whet our appetite as to what Joe Wright would bring to a full-on fairy tale.

3 ½ Stars.  

Monday, June 20, 2011


It’s strange, but I’ve just realized that three out of the last four films that I have seen have had to do with the circus or carnivals.  The latest is Alex de la Iglesia’s new film “The Last Circus (Balada triste de trompeta)”.  Although I am a massive fan of de la Iglesia’s work, I have to admit that his output can be a little hit or miss.  When he is totally on his game, he can make truly spectacular films that are right up there with the best of De Palma (like the films “La Communidad”, “The Baby’s Room” and “The Ferpect Crime”), but he can also go the other way and make some less impressive features that I suppose non-fans of the director would call “duds” (like “800 Bullets” and “The Oxford Murders”).  He is a very visual director (hence the De Palma reference previous),  so his films are never dull to watch and the content within them is usually so bizarre that you are never sure exactly what you are going to get or what will happen next (which is always a good thing).  That defines “The Last Circus” perfectly because I’m sure when the film starts that no-one at all could predict exactly where this film goes and how it is going to end.  It is insane.

The film begins with a prologue that is set in 1937 where we are witness to a performance by two clowns, one happy and one sad, to a bunch of young kids.  The show is soon interrupted by revolutionary forces who, desperate for troops, begin forcing people to draft in their cause and fight in their war.  When the sad clown refuses (and ultimately pays for this refusal), the happy clown reluctantly agrees and is immediately sent off to war, leaving behind his young son, Javier, who was sitting in the crowd.  He is thrust straight into the thick of the battle, and let me just say, the image of a machete branding clown (in a dress, no less) laying waste to the enemy’s regime in brutal and violent manners, is one of the strangest you are likely to see, but it gives you an indication of the kind of film that you have wondered into.

Ten years later after the war has ended, Javier visits his father, who is still imprisoned for his part in the war, to tell him that he has decided to continue in the family tradition and become a clown – a “happy” one.  His father disagrees with him and explains that because of the tragedy of this war he has missed out on a childhood, and he is far more suited to the role of the “sad” clown, as he doesn’t have the ability to make people laugh.  We then flash-forward to 1973 where Javier has just joined a circus playing the “sad” clown to Sergio’s “happy” clown, who also happens to be the circus’s main attraction.  While being shown around the circus, Javier lays eyes on the beautiful Natalia, who is the troupe’s acrobat.  He is immediately spellbound by her, but she also happens to be the girlfriend of his clown rival, Sergio.  Right from the get-go it is obvious that Sergio is a dangerous and violent man, and this is never more evident than when Javier is invited to a dinner with the rest of the circus troupe.  Throughout the whole night Sergio is the centre of attention, and demands that attention, but the night goes sour when Javier is the only one not to laugh at one of Sergio’s jokes (due to the fact that it is in incredibly poor taste).  Sergio is outraged that someone hasn’t laughed at his joke (because he is a clown “and he knows what is funny!!”) and when Natalia tries to calm him down, he explodes into a rage of violence against her, beating her unconscious in front of everyone.  The only person who tries to do anything to help is Javier, which sets the tone for the rivalry between these two clowns for the love of Natalia, which continues and escalates through to the end of the film.  The twists and turns that the film takes until it reaches this finale are truly insane and trust me, you will never know where this thing is going.

Critically “The Last Circus” started its life very positively when it was awarded “Best Screenplay” and the “Silver Lion” (Best Director) award at the 2010 Venice Film Festival.  However since then, the critical reaction has been mixed.  Fans of de la Iglesia seem to really enjoy the film, while others have denounced it as utter trash.  Personally, I think the film, when it is at its best, is very good indeed, but it does straddle a line into the absurd which it occasionally even falls into.  “The Last Circus” is the first film by de la Iglesia that has not been co-written with his regular writing partner, Jorge Guerricaechevarría, and I think this shows in the film’s lack of cohesion at times.  It just doesn’t feel as tightly put together as his previous films.  For the first hour of its running time, I believe that it is spot on, but it hits a certain point in the film (when our hero is re-coupérating in a cave) where it starts to lose its way a bit.  It continues to get more absurd and ridiculous as it builds to the end, and it gets harder and harder to suspend your disbelief in the actions happening on screen, which ultimately makes the second half of the film not seem as tight or as well put together as the beginning.  However I will say that this is due to ambition, because what de la Iglesia is doing with “The Last Circus” is making an allegory to Franco-era Spain with Natalia standing in for Spain, Sergio, the fascists and Javier representing the common folk.  By this we can determine that de la Iglesia believes that Spain during that time was complicit to the abuse being forced upon it, and even got a strange pleasure from it (and formed its identity from it).  The other thing he seems to be saying is that if you spend enough time fighting these monsters (fascists), you ultimately become one yourself.  As I mentioned, I am not sure that he gets these ideas across as well as he could have, but the ambition to do so shouldn’t be looked at as a negative.

As usual for a de la Iglesia film it is visually stunning, but it is largely without the long complicated shots that he often puts into his films.  Some of the images in “The Last Circus” are those that you would have likely never seen in a film before (and probably again), like the transformation scene when Javier turns himself into a clown “permanently”.  It is crazy (and a more than a little disturbing).  The world of the circus gives de la Iglesia ample opportunities to show-off visually and he does not disappoint, with one exception.  Unfortunately he falls into the trap of over-using CGI in the finale of “The Last Circus”, to the point that it takes you out of the film as you no longer believe what it happening on screen, because the computer images are of such poor quality that it never looks real.  Being someone who is so obsessed with visuals it is actually a bit of a shock to see this in a de la Iglesia film.

In regards to performances in the film, they are all well done, with the two boys really standing out: Carlos Areces as the permanently sad clown, and Antonio de la Torre as the evil Sergio.  Originally I was going to write that de la Torre was the highlight of the film, but in terms of characters arc and what he ultimately turns into, the role of Javier is the harder of the two and Areces really pulls off both spectrums to his character.  We ultimately care for this character who we could have easily disliked if put in the wrong hands, because let’s face it, Javier is a bit of a whiner.  Carolina Bang as Natalia is a little one-note but her performance is never bad, plus she is stunningly gorgeous to look at, which in this role is a huge positive.

Overall Alex de la Iglesia, a director who you would never call subtle and who often likes to let his films tip into the realm of excess, has created a baroque and entertaining film with “The Last Circus”.  It is like a mixture of grand guignol and opera, it is always violent and grotesque, but within all of this it is also an allegory to Franco-era Spain.  I cannot finish this review without mentioning its brilliant title sequence, it is simply outstanding and sets you in the mood for the next two hours.  Understand that the film is not for everyone’s taste, but if you are a fan of de la Iglesia’s previous work, I’m sure that you will find his latest film very worthwhile.

3.5 Stars.

I just want to note that Alex de la Iglesia has already finished filming his next film, “La Chispa de La Vida” (which stars Salma Hayek), which may premiere at this year’s Venice Film Fesival.  Again Jorge Guerricaechevarría is not involved in the screenwriting (I hope they have not had a falling out), but for the first time, neither is de la Iglesia.  The script is by the screenwriter of “Tango and Cash” and is apparently a “dramedy”.  Not sure about this one, but any film directed by de la Iglesia is one that I will look forward to.